Director Kelly Reichardt’s new film, Meek’s Cutoff, is one of the more interesting westerns to come along in a while. You may know Reichardt from her earlier film Wendy and Lucy (a story of a woman and her dog that gets me all misty-eyed just thinking about it). Like Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff stars Michelle Williams, and like that earlier movie, Meek’s Cutoff is set (and filmed on location) in Oregon, but it takes place in 1845 rather than the contemporary Oregon of Wendy and Lucy.
The situation in the film is that a group of settlers following a guide named Stephen Meek have departed from the main stem of the Oregon Trail, but, rather than the cutoff providing a shorter way to their destination, the group seems to be wandering aimlessly in the Oregon desert. Early in the film, one member of the group despairingly carves the word “Lost” onto a fallen tree. When we meet the settlers, they have been off the main trail for several weeks, and whatever faith they had in Meek’s guidance has also been lost. The only question in Emily Tetherow’s mind is whether Meek is “ignorant or evil,” whether he has led them astray intentionally (as part of a larger conspiracy against immigrants) or is just incompetent as guide—despite his considerable assertions of self-confidence.
Emily (played by Michelle Williams) is the central character of the film, and the movie alternates between viewing the settlers dispassionately and objectively and showing us events from Emily’s viewpoint.
One of the elements I liked about the film was its use of sound. There’s very little music, and most of the sound is diegetic. The settlers sing “Closer My Lord to Thee” (and, indeed, the only destination they seem to be approaching is death). Nondiegetic music is rare, mostly in the form of brief interludes of string music, eerie and distorted. Mostly what we hear is the sound of travel: the persistent squeak of a wagon wheel, the sounds of oxen teams and other animals, the creak of harnesses and yokes, the banging of objects in the wagons, the constant rumble of wagon wheels over the hard ground. In one scene, the camera is on Meek, who has ridden ahead in search of water. We know the settlers are catching up with him because we hear them first—the high-pitched squeak of the wagon wheel that gets louder and louder, and then the rest of the sounds that don’t carry as far as that squeak. That squeaking wheel is so persistent in the film, that I swear I heard it for the next few hours after I left the theater.
I also greatly appreciated the patient cinematography demonstrated in Meek’s Cutoff. I’ve seen too many movies recently that seem like they were filmed by having two cinematographers toss a camera back and forth to each other, and what we see of the action on-screen is a frenetically-edited jittery incomprehensible blur. And, while the camera is being tossed back and forth, add in frequent and random zooms (in and out). The overabundance of this style of filmmaking has made me all the more appreciative of two things: tripods and long takes. (As Stephen Colbert says, “We can put a man on the moon, so, surely, we can put a camera on a tripod.”)
One of the things that I liked best about Meek’s Cutoff was the use of long takes. Often, a stationary camera distantly observes the action. We see an empty landscape; we hear the noises faintly of the wagon train moving; the noises get louder; the first walker appears and moves slowly across the screen; others follow, oxen pulling wagons, humans walking along beside them or trailing behind; one of the walkers collapses; the camera remains where it is, objectively observing as the rest of the party rushes toward the fallen man.
While the men are off searching for water, Emily (almost literally) runs into an Indian man while she is picking up firewood. Terrified, she rushes back to the camp, and, in one long take, we see here prepare a muzzle-loading rifle with powder and shot, shoot it, and then prepare and fire a second shot. It’s a brilliant scene, the long take effectively demonstrating the details of how the weapon operates and giving Michelle Williams a chance to show us something significant about her character, the mixture of frantic (but not quite panicked) terror and clear-headed competence. Emily is a sensible woman, but she is a realistic character, one whose reasonable fears are part of her portrayal.
So, I loved the long takes, and I loved the film’s observational patience, but that’s clearly not the case for every audience member (as I heard the person seated behind me say at the end of the film: “It was like watching paint dry”).
I wonder if the advertising campaign establishes the wrong expectations for this film. The movie poster, which features a drawing of a determined-looking Emily with a raised rifle, makes it seems like the film is going to be another version of True Grit. Although clearly a western, the aesthetics and philosophy of Meek’s Cutoff have more in common with Samuel Beckett than Samuel Peckinpah. This is, in a sense, like Waiting for Godot, a drama in which nothing happens, and in which the characters’ situation by the end of the film has not been greatly altered from the beginning (except that our characters may be getting closer and closer to death—or, maybe there will be water over that next hill).
A key dramatic event in the film is when Meek and Solomon Tetherow capture the Indian who has been following the party. Meek wants to kill him, but Tetherow wants to use him as a guide. Surely, the Indian knows the territory better than any of them and can lead them to water (and, undoubtedly, he knows the territory better than Meek). The ambiguity of the Indian (as the character is listed in the credits, or The Cayuse as he’s called on the film’s website) is well played by actor (and stuntman) Rod Rondeaux. Is the Indian leading them to water or to perdition? or is he just as lost as they are? should they place their trust in a captive (who has no reason, other than saving his own life, to do the bidding of his captors) or in Meek, who has proven himself unreliable?
There are moments in the film (and especially the final shot of the Indian walking away from the camera) that remind me of Dutch artist Guido van der Werve’s experimental films, especially “Nummer acht: Everything is going to be alright,” which consists of one long take of the artist walking across ice with an icebreaker ship seemingly following behind.
No single take in Meek’s Cutoff lasts 1o minutes (as does van der Werve’s film), but there’s a similar sense of endless walking through a landscape that is menacing, whether because of seen or unseen (possible) pursuers or because of moving through a natural space that is in itself threatening to human life (because of heat and lack of water, or because of cold and ice as in “Nummer acht”).