Glasgow Film Theatre, 15.04.11

The people at Soda Pictures, the film distribution company responsible for this month’s release of Kelly Reichardt’s revisionist Western, Meek’s Cutoff, know how to win me over.  Through the medium of Twitter they ran a competition to coincide with the release, offering followers the chance to win Reichardt’s previous two films, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) on DVD, and luckily for me I was one of the fortunate winners.  A couple of days later and two DVD’s, plus a delicious Wagon Wheel arrived in the post.  It seemed only fair, then, that when I turned up to the Glasgow Film Theatre to find Meek’s Cutoff starting imminently, that I ventured in to see it.  It turned out to be rewarding experience.

The film is loosely based on real events from 1845, when families used the Oregon Trail to head West and pioneer new lands.  A mountain man, Stephen Meek, convinced some families that he knew a shortcut through the mountains that would lead them to their destination quicker, but in reality the families found themselves trekking across rugged desert, running out of water and abandoning possessions along the way.  Some survived to reach their destination, while others perished en route.  The film follows three families and their wagons as they follow Meek (Bruce Greenwood) and grow more and more desperately lost.  As we join them at the film’s opening, Thomas (Paul Dano) is already scraping ‘LOST’ into the bark of a dying tree.  They are soon running low on water, hungry, unsure of which direction to go in, losing faith in Meek and capturing an Indian (Rod Rondeaux) whom they hope can lead them out of the wilderness.

If the plot reads like something straight from a classic John Wayne Hollywood Western, Reichardt’s, and regular writing collaborator Jon Raymond’s, approach is very different.  Much of the film is shot from the point of view of the women on the trail.  The character of Meek, a role one could see Wayne portraying as the leader of the little band, in fact turns out to be deceitful, rash, hot-tempered and a fraud, desperate only to preserve the fallacy that he knows what he is doing.  But the other men in the group fail, initially, to stand up to Meek, while the women look on, tending to every day things – washing the clothes, cooking, sewing and mending.  This is a side to the west largely ignored by Hollywood.  Eventually the men do start to mistrust Meek, in several conversations we see from the women’s point of view, the men debate what step to take next – the women get no say in this, but  it is Emily Tetherow (an excellent Michelle Williams) who most defiantly stands up to Meek when he threatens to kill the Indian they have captured, staring him down with gun drawn.

Stylistically too, Reichardt subverts many of the established conventions of the classic Western.  Notably, she shots in the Academy ratio 1.33:1 (a square screen) rather than the typical 1.85:1 or 2.35:1.  The widescreen ratios have traditionally suited the wide vistas of the open plains, revealing the epic expanses of empty land.  Here, Reichardt shows the stunning Oregon scenery, but by confining it to the narrower screen conveys the trapped feeling of the pioneers, unable to escape the endless desert.  It has also been compared to the restricted view that the women view the vast landscape in, as their bonnets narrow their field of vision, again trapping them within the vast landscape.  The pace of the film too contradicts the typical Western film.  There is little action on-screen, the most traditional element of a western – the riding out by Meek and Tetherow (Will Patton) to capture the Indian – happens off-screen, while we wait with the wagons, like the characters in the film, unsure of what is happening.  There are no big action sequences, no horse races, no shoot outs.  Instead, Reichhardt concentrates on the monotony and harshness of the daily trek suffered by the pioneers.  Slow dissolves, pans and static shots document the painstakingly slow progress across the plains, and the physical hardship that the families are experiencing.

The film’s ending is also ambiguous.  Against Meek’s warnings not to trust the native, the families decide to follow the Indian, believing he will lead them to water and safety.  After days of walking he leads them to a lone tree in the middle of the arid land.  If there is a tree then there must be water.  The families debate whether they should carry on or turn back, Meek is reduced to following whatever the families decide to do, and it is left to a democratic show of hands as to what option they choose.  This time it is the women who are lobbying and making decisions.  Emily watches the Indian wander off into the distance and the film ends.  There are several interpretations of the ending that feed back into the previous hour and a half of film.  Widely critiqued is Meek’s Cutoff  as a political allegory for America’s years under the presidency of George W. Bush, and the Iraq war:  Meek represents Bush, an unqualified leader out of his depth, reactionary and hostile; the West becomes Iraq; the American Indian the Iraqi people whose country has been invaded; and the families represent the American people, initially following their leader and later becoming suspicious of his ability and motives.  The Indian wandering into the distance represents the uncertain future that lies ahead, or the possibly the hope that Barack Obama brought with him in 2008.  Interestingly, Reichardt has herself admitted to another political interpretation that casts Meek as Obama rather than Bush.  The film was shot as Obama was taking office and yet his years since taking charge, from the certainty and optimism of a bright future to the uncertain economic and global conflicts of today, can also be mapped onto the travails of the Oregon trail.

In the end Meek’s Cutoff is a strong enough story and film to stand on its own without needing to read allegory into it, and as a revisionist, feminist Western it brings a new twist to one of the oldest of American film genres.  And I can also recommend Reichardt’s earlier films, particularly Michelle Williams as Wendy and Will Patton and Lucy the dog again, in the excellent Wendy and Lucy, a simple, touching film, that can be enjoyed nicely with a tasty Wagon Wheel.

Film Ratings:
Meek’s Cutoff – 4 out of 5.
Wendy and Lucy – 3.5 out of 5.
Old Joy – 2.5 out of 5.

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