In anticipation of "First Cow," THC is committing March to the films of Kelly Reichardt.
"Meek's Cutoff" is the first film I've seen that gratifies the antedated reality of wagon trains to the West. It was dirty, burning, thirsty, grueling, and freezing ordeals. Accidents and diseases were the greatest indulgences; not attacks by Native people. My interpretation of the western genre is largely piffled by "One-Eyed Jacks." I've developed a composite image of wagon trains as Monterey parades led by Karl Malden, overcrowded with women wearing calico dresses, and someone strumming "Streets of Laredo."
Director Kelly Reichardt's does her utmost to submerge her story in the sanctimony of the Oregon Trail, where stamina was adverted in the face of a vast wilderness. She shows three families who coruscate in the varied conditions before they gradually understand that they are hopelessly lost and throw in the towel. Their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), glibly wafts his accomplishments, however, members of the wagon train sense that he is pushing ahead blindly on a wild-goose chase in search of a way through the Cascade Mountains.
The group includes Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams); her husband, Solomon (Will Patton); the young couple Millie and Thomas Gately (Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano), and the Whites, Glory, William, and Jimmy (Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, and Tommy Nelson). In their wagons, they bring a few household furnishings, some clothes and a forlorn bird in a cage, whose pathetic smallness echoes their own in this landscape.
Reichardt uxoriously focuses on Michelle Williams as Emily. Williams appears at first to be a spoony, plaything person, but she then reveals inner credulity. Chronologically, she is certain their guide is chasing feathers, she is sure they'll soon face dehydration and it's Emily who reflectively schemes how they use an Indian they capture to find water.
The Native Person is first dropped like a seed into the films unconscious when he is seen alone on a high ledge watching the wagons. Unlike the fierce closeups of Indian warriors we've been trained on in Westerns, he begins to germinate as an enigmatic man, protracted, observing, mostly held in the film's go-to long and medium shots.
At a time when many directors fall into the suitable pattern of standard visual language, Reichardt executes a plan that signifies the distance and isolation of these travelers. This film is photographed in the 1:1.33 screen ratio. Her frame encloses her characters — not in the limitless landscape but in their seemingly hopeless journey. They are such a small helpless group, bound up with their hopes and fears. It fair makes me break into a muck sweat to think of what ensued 165 years ago when an ox-drawn covered wagon set out to trek across a continent in search of rumors.
The bonnets in "Meek's Cutoff" jauntily duck faces deep in fabric and must create tunnel vision. They not only protect women but limit them. The men are also hidden; Meek's biblical beard and the deep shadow of his hat make him concealed and enigmatic.
The antiquary thing here is the subservience of the characters to the landscape. These pioneers do not elevate to the astride of the land, they're distracted by misery and exhaustion. The wagon wheels wagons are no match for the terrain and to retain their composer under stress is tough enough but there is a heartbreaking accident. The peeps of the caged bird relive a mocking reminder of the domestic sojourn they've left behind.
"Meek's Cutoff" is an experience, not a story. It's riddled with conflicts but isn't about them. The intuitions and frustrations of the group are an example of the power of mind over matter. Reichardt has the courage to establish that. She's genuinely curious about the hardly-educated pioneers who were brave, curious or hopeful enough to set out on such a dangerous journey. It goes without saying that they had nothing to keep them home where they started from. Many started full of gravel and died on the journey toward hope. I recently learned that "Meek's Cutoff" was based on a true story. I didn't need to be told that.