Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt 2010) – out on DVD
The excellent, if engimatic, Meek’s Cutoff is released on DVD on Monday 8th August. Here’s a review, although you can also read the introduction to Meek’s Cutoff I gave at Derby QUAD earlier this year.
(Kelly Reichardt, US, 2010)
The title’s half-right. Sure, this is boxed-in and isolated from convention…but meek? It takes bravery to be this boring
A cutoff is an archaic word for a shortcut, the ironic motor for Kelly Reichardt’s film about pioneers whose ill-advised decision to trust mountain man guide Meek gets them hopelessly lost in the Oregon desert. But ‘cutoff’ is also what the film is: a Western that staunchly breaks with convention in terms of plot, character and even the very look of the film.
Initially, it’s the latter decision that is most striking. Hardly anybody in American film has used the Academy Ratio in the past 50 years, yet here’s a modern movie that flaunts its claustrophobic, classical frame. The effect is disconcerting, inducing a tunnel vision that’s accentuated by the parched landscapes (here’s a film to remind you that the Earth is cinema’s greatest special effect) and by the realisation that half of the characters looking back are themselves hemmed-in by vision-curtailing bonnets.
That’d be the women, of course, and much of the film presents wives doing nothing more than quietly, patiently watch their husbands talk shop, the camera hanging back at a distance, the soundtrack muted by howling wind or the creak of wagon axles turning. Reichardt’s unglamorous vision concentrates on the task in hand: namely, how these women pioneers trudge without guaranteed reward for weeks on end (sewing, cooking, gathering wood) while the men march on with resolute looks but an appalling lack of common sense. Into this environment, a semi-civilised nomad Meek is master – but a master of what?
The problem isn’t so much that generations of deferential protocol are keeping the women from speaking their mind. It’s that the men – who can see straight through his bullshit – are too spineless to do anything because they’re in thrall to mythology of the mountain man as a sage of the West. The cunning, sociopathic Meek exploits these philosophical loopholes to feed his ego and belly alike; meanwhile, the only boy in the party becomes entranced by his tall-but-grisly tales of ethnic butchery. Remember how many generations of American men learned their politics from John Wayne, and shudder.
Like any film, this stand-off requires a spark, and, with impeccable timing, into the mix comes an Indian – spy, assassin, or godsend? Years of prejudice have set Meek’s heart already, but Michelle Williams’ Ellie (the first to encounter the Indian, without harm befalling her) thinks otherwise. The result is a fascinating clash of civilisations: not only between white man and Injun, but between man and woman. Ellie recognises that, far from being the savage heathen Meek paints him as, the Indian’s apparent passivity is in fact rapt concentration, as he learns new skills and customs from his captors. She’d know, of course, because she herself is passive only in public, quite happy to speak her mind to her liberal husband – she’s the proto-feminist who eventually takes a decisive hand.
But how decisive? The film’s trump card is the opacity of its sand-blasted window on the past. Reichardt sets up a conflict that any other Western would resolve with a shootout, but her neo-realist sensibility intuits that, in the real West, those old-timey traditions would render things closer to a chess game: stiff, courteous and likely to end in stalemate. Dramatically, this simply does not go where you expect, and the looping structure – which lacks a true beginning or end – feels like a noose.
The claustrophobia extends to the film’s woozy, dilated sense of time itself. Its story is so tightly focussed that it comes to resemble fragments of a journal, an incomplete history whose chief benefit is to heighten the harshness of the journey. Weirdly, the nearest comparison might not be to any other Western but to The Blair Witch Project, another film about lost explorers who have left behind only hints as to their whereabouts.