Meek’s Cutoff – An Introduction
Here’s the text of a talk about Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, which I gave at Derby QUAD on Thursday 12th May 2011.
Introduction to Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt 2010)
The Western, historically, is a man’s genre. From John Wayne to Clint Eastwood, via The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch, the American West is a land where it’s the men – whether Good, Bad or Ugly – who drive cattle, build railroads or rob banks. Women, especially in the films of John Ford, were there to make the grub, teach the kids and get kidnapped by Injuns.
Those women who did headline Westerns tended to be either in Musicals – think of Doris Day’s Calamity Jane or Betty Hutton in Annie Get Your Gun – or camp icons vamping it up in hysterical works by maverick directors: actresses like Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious, Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, and Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns.
It wasn’t until the counter-cultural 1960s and 1970s that women got level-pegging, even if most of the characters they played seemed to be entrepreneurial prostitutes. Think of Claudia Cardinale being threatened for her land in Once Upon A Time in The West, Julie Christie opening a whorehouse in McCabe and Mrs Miller, or Jane Fonda avenging her father’s death in Cat Ballou. John Ford even got around to making Seven Women, starring Anne Bancroft, but it was too little, too late – it was Ford’s last film.
That gender renaissance was short-lived, as science-fiction replaced Westerns as Hollywood’s most bankable genre. There was a brief run of cowgirl movies in the 1990s but these rested less on plausible characters than the high-concept novelty of women playing outlaws: Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, Bad Girls and The Quick and The Dead, where Sharon Stone is basically pretending to be Clint Eastwood with breasts.
So a film like Meek’s Cutoff is doubly radical. Not only are women at the centre of the film, but they are the exact type of women character – plain, dutiful, pious – who populated the background of all those John Ford movies. In contrast, here they are forced to step out of their menfolk’s shadow when they suspect that a wandering guide, Meek, who they’ve hired to lead them to a brave new world, isn’t all he seems.
This is a subversive strike against the accepted mythology of the American West, especially the reverence accorded the mountain man, the semi-civilised nomad who tamed the Wild West. Watch James Stewart in How The West Was Won for a typical example of the good mountain man, and then compare him to Meek: a sexist, racist sociopath. The movie rests on the question of whether the women, forever undervalued and undermined, can force their party to reconsider blind allegiance to Meek.
“Kelly Reichardt’s career parallels the characters in Meek’s Cutoff, as she’s long battled to get her movies made…”
It’s a bold move, but one that confirms Kelly Reichardt as one of the most interesting directors around. To some extent, her career parallels the characters here, as she’s long battled to get her movies made. Meek’s Cutoff is her fourth feature film – but there was over a decade’s gap after her debut, 1994’s River of Grass, before she made another. Her day job is as a film lecturer, which explains the thoughtful rewriting of Western mythology, but also underlines her struggle to be a full-time filmmaker. Indeed, the money on Meek’s Cutoff dried up before she’d grabbed her last shot, which that partly explains the film’s sudden, oblique ending…although Reichardt is on record as saying that she’s have opted for ambiguity even with the cash for another day’s shooting.
The films she has found funding for have made a virtue of their thrift-store aesthetic. Her most recent films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, were both based on short stories by writer Jon Raymond, about characters on the margins of society. In Old Joy, two friends reunite on a camping trip that exposes the failures they’ve made in life. In Wendy and Lucy, a homeless job-seeker breaks down in a town with no work and then loses her dog. Reichardt films without fuss, zeroes in on character, and keeps things lean: Wendy and Lucy clocked in at only 80 minutes long, which makes Meek’s Cutoff, at 104 minutes, an epic by her standards.
Critics have placed her in an unofficial movement called Neo-Neo Realism, a new wave of low-budget directors in American that returns to the roots of independent cinema. Not for them the quirky comedies of Wes Anderson or the bloody thrillers of Tarantino, just a quiet, naturalistic look at small-town Americana. Meek’s Cutoff is an attempt to use that same style on the wide open spaces and mythic tradition of the Western.
John Raymond’s script was inspired by the real-life Meek but based on historical journals by women pioneers. It’s a celebration of the marginal figures who were forced along for the ride by the menfolk’s hubris and greed, and the film even looks old and sand-blasted, like a hidden document of the past that’s been found buried in the desert. Reichardt deliberately films using old-fashioned techniques, both in terms of the slow, stately pace and the rare use of the box-shaped Academy Ratio, which Hollywood hasn’t used for over 50 years. No epic, Widescreen vistas of Monument Valley here.
And Reichardt’s capability to remove flashiness is startling. If Wendy and Lucy starred a recognisable name in Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine actress Michelle Williams, it didn’t show on screen – and Williams is back here, headlining alongside with a relatively star-laden cast. The pioneers include Paul Dano from There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine, and Scottish actress Shirley Henderson, best known as Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films. Meek is played by character actor Bruce Greenwood, a veteran of blockbusters like I, Robot and Star Trek.
But on this shoot, there was no pampering or home comforts for the actors. Reichardt made them trudge across Oregon’s rattlesnake-strewn desert in harsh austerity, filming in sequence so they had to actually live as their characters would. No only did they have to pack their own characters’ supplies, Reichardt even refused to let them wash their on-screen clothes, although after a cast mutiny, she compromised: they could wash the inside of their clothes! Reportedly, flying back home after the film had wrapped, Reichardt and the crew looked down and saw the landscape that had taken weeks to walk across, pass by in the blink of an eye. That’s American progress for you – but as Meek’s Cutoff reminds us, it wasn’t the walk in the park that John Wayne made it look. It was tough, uncomfortable, dangerous work – and the women were right there alongside the menfolk.