May 31, 2012
I finally got around to watching Meek’s Cutoff a couple of nights ago, and I recalled reading Michael’s post about the film, probably over a year ago now. I’ve also kept promising Michael I’d be getting back to blogging here or whatever again. So I’m going to seize the opportunity and add some of my thoughts about this interesting film.
It is sometimes fairly closely, other times rather loosely, based, as no doubt many of this site’s readers know, on an actual historical event. Stephen Meek was the older brother of the legendary mountain man Joe Meek. The actual party he was leading in this case was a large one, consisting of over 1000 people, 200 wagons, though there was a period where the group broke into two parties, Meek taking the smaller one on. The film cuts even that reduction down by a huge margin to three wagons and seven people. This change in the adaptation of the historical record seems to serve multiple purposes: it provides a manageable cast through which the audience can gain some insight into each character; it allows increased focus in numerous regards ranging from camera work to alleviating confusion; it furnishes sharper dramatic unity.
All told, only nine characters appear in the film after adding Meek and the Indian. A final element this narrowing of characters allows for is the casting of solid actors throughout the cast: Michelle Williams and Paul Dano may be the best known (though Will Patton and Bruce Greenwood are also familiar to me), but it is difficult to argue that any actor in this film, including the boy, ever misfires at all on screen, whether in speech, expression, or mannerism.
Beyond question it is a serious film, an “art film.” It makes many demands on viewers. Dialogue is less than sparse and doesn’t even enter the film at all until what seems like at least ten minutes or more into the movie but I think is only around 6 minutes in. The soundtrack dominates the audible features of the film, particularly odd sounds: the high-pitched squeaky wheels of the wagons, the later less high-pitched wheels, and a sound I assume is the wind (at any rate, a particularly mystical sort of background sound). The high-pitched sound reminds me a great deal of the squeaking windmill that is heard throughout much of Sergio Leone’s long, also-patience-demanding (yet wonderful) opening several minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West,though in this case it would seem overly forced to argue it is intended as a reference to Leone. Also in terms of sound, the score is also a sort of undertow, moody, brooding, minimal—and haunting. It fits the film perfectly.
The use of 1.33:1 aspect may seem surprising—that is essentially the size of television screens, rather than the standard (especially for most Westerns since the size’s advent) wide screen aspect (16.9)—but it’s no accident. What it does for this film is allow at once a sense of heightened claustrophobia within a monsterously huge and overpowering landscape—that is, it constricts and reduces the landscape, causing viewers to experience it more as the characters actually at least arguably would given their circumstances (it is wonderfully shot/set up/etc.—much more so than say my much-beloved Lonesome Dove, shot in the TV aspect because, well, it was for TV).
Yet the frequent use of complete darkness, with conversations between the Tetherows in particular and occasionally the party, draw extra attention at those times to the spoken word. These scenes, many of them featuring some light and image at least part of the time via a lantern or firelight, again serve to add intimacy, to put the viewer into the characters’ world and experience—and at the least hint of symbolic suggestiveness, of words out of darkness.
More directly thematically, and linking to the above, I find three parts of the film crucial: Meek’s jovial conversations with the boy, when Meek directly addresses Williams’s Emily Tetherow about women and men and, naturally enough, the film’s ending. The film’s Meek is no common villain, arguably no villain at all. He is a creature of his time, but one we are to look at with both that fact and our own time in mind.
He is frequently likeable, especially with the boy. He captivates the boy with stories of his brother Joe, stories of the legendary West before and “now” in 1845. The stories appeal to the boy, and to us. Granted, he is “sexist” and “racist” to our time, and this film skillfully weaves in those and other elements in reaching out to its modern audience and its sensibilities—yet does so without getting preachy or making Meek an abomination. He represents the Meek of his time, and the Meek of ours, but it’s clear this Meek shall not inherit the earth in either of these worlds—or the film’s.
But even in some of his bumbling conversations with Emily (and the other two women), he offers a clumsy charm. All three seem to believe he has little knowledge of women, to the point in fact that in a fine scene beginning at the 40:00 mark of the film, Zoe Henderson’s Glory White asks if he’s “never womaned.” He replies he has, with “squaws,” not even appearing able to recognize his inappropriateness toward the three ladies in bringing that up. Soon one of the most suggestive, meaningful lines in the film emerges from him, though, as he tries to reassure Emily: “We’re not lost—we’re just finding our way.” Her arguably overly harsh response is that he not “patronize” her, after which he entirely bumbles by speculating that she might be “flirtin’ with me.” He then embarks on a speculative journey about gender, discoursing on the main difference between women and men: women bring “chaos” and “disorder” and “new things” into the world; Men are the planet’s destructive side. It is creation versus nihilism, Brahma versus Shiva. The two are complimentary, however, more than foes. And this idea seems supported by the film’s ending.
And Meek does change, as that ending makes clear, to the point that we realize that he’s never been closed minded. He’s also never really been a “fierce patriarch,” except in his violence toward the Indian, nor is he by nature mean-spirited or dominating. But his way must be left behind, too—by the others and by him. So, in another key scene, running only for about a potent minute, from 1:35-1:36, he concedes to the group gathered by the tree of hope and whatever else it may signify: “I’m takin’ orders from you now, Mr. Tetherow . . . Miz Tetherow. We’re all takin’ our orders from him [the Indian], I’d say. Just playin’ our parts now. . . . written long before we got here. I’m at your command.” These are the last words spoken in the film. So in one sense Meek gets the last word, the last number of words. But they are his surrender, his acknowledgment that he has been wrong, that better ways are available. The bi- or even tri- (or more?) levels of meaning here are fairly fascinating.
Thus at film’s end we realize that this journey has been a Zane Greyesque (in some ways) crucible journey. Not only for the entire party, but also most of all for Meek. The term “cutoff” itself takes on several ramifications.
Historically, we know that the Indian led the group safely to water, indeed did so for a blanket. The film, however, leaves the outcome uncertain, with even the discovery of the tree ambiguous, given that its lower half is leafy, its upper reaches bare. The tree would also seem to offer a connection to the male-female issues raised in the film, particularly since the boy early on reads aloud from Genesis about Adam and Eve. Six of the emigrants—three paired groups of male-female (the boy standing in for his father)—are gathered under the tree. Meek is off separate as he makes his concessions, the Indian off separate ahead, then walking away. It emphasizes the choice they have, as if between the patriarchal “God,” Meek, and the “Heathen.”
I feel there is only one clichéd moment in the film: when Williams’s character first comes upon the Indian. It is still made more believable than usual, however, as her gaze has long been fixed on the ground, searching for firewood, but I’m sorry, it still doesn’t work to have someone come suddenly and surprised upon someone else straight in front of her and out in the open. I expected the clichéd convention, and sure enough, it hit. However, the number of other times in the filn I expected a cliché, none came to pass.
In short, this film truly asks, demands, we enter it—not merely experience it as a viewer, but as a member of the party. While it is tempting to label it as “too precious” or “overly arty” or to accuse it of calling attention to itself, I don’t think it really does, not at all. It is instead organic, unified, and it given the chance (which most viewers won’t give it), it succeeds wonderfully at what it is intends to do. And it is a film that will stay with you, one that lends itself to pondering.