Meek’s Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt’s compelling anti-Western is almost like Gerry but with a wagon train instead of Damon and the more talented Affleck. I half-kid. She sets up some glorious but static shots of size and distance: clouds moving quickly in silhouette against the stars; the forlorn convoy trudging in miniature on the horizon. But despite the scope–even because of the sweep of the empty Eastern Oregon high plains–the visuals don’t “thrill,” don’t convey a sense of majesty or myth, but rather the opposite. It’s a big, flat, unmarked Empty–with muted colors.

The Western often turns to color in outsized characters, and Meek is a raggedy-headed self-styled Frontiersman–Buffalo-Bill haircut, his eyes glaring from the small space between his hat and his ropy facial hair. But while full of stories he’s also full of shit, and you never once take him seriously — or, rather, you realize almost immediately (thanks to Bruce Greenwood’s near-perfect performance) that he’s an ass, and the collision of the Void and this dipshit “leader” creates a compelling tension. You feel utterly lost.

Which is where the brilliant Michelle Williams comes in. As Emily, the wife of the one reasonably-competent man in the group (a taciturn, effective Will Patton), she stares with a vicious intensity at all around, slicing through Meek, seeing the problems they face. The women are shuffled off to the sides, and the camera is often positioned with them, staring back over shoulders at the men making some bad decision or another. But Emily’s no easy hero, either; she’s not sure how to proceed, she has as complicated a relationship with the Indian they capture as Meek has. His swaggering derision and bloodthirstiness may be puffery, but her attempts to use this man to get the group to water and safety are no less selfish, no less unreflectively self-assured, and no more helpful.

Rod Rondeaux’s performance as “the Indian” also sidesteps the potholes familiar to Westerns and to anti-Westerns. He’s smaller, his hairline’s receding; he’s neither mythic villain nor counterprogramming New-Age hero; he’s not inscrutable, or mere cipher–there’s a recognizable human behaving in ways that resist translation or easy assimilation into the crude desires of the wagon train or of the viewers. It’s a performance–and a well-scripted character–that could have in any number of small ways gone in an easier direction, but Rondeaux’s really good.

The only problem with an anti-Western is Reichardt’s stately pace. I found it utterly compelling–but my point of comparison might be Police, Adjective, a film which was for me utterly gripping but relentlessly minimalist in pacing and event, an anti-Police story in the ways this is anti-Western. But I think Cutoff is a helluva good film.

8 thoughts on “Meek’s Cutoff

  1. It was compelling (though Police, Adjective plays like a James Cameron film compared to Meek’s Cutoff), and I was fond of the cinematography (particularly the use of 1.33:1 aspect ratio) as well as the nuanced use of color in the bleached out landscapes and the women’s costumes. Maybe its my tinnitus but the sound mix was frustrating (but that could have been the point as the camera does hang with the women while the men are often “problem-solving” a few yards away). Anyway, I agree with everything Mike says. Bruce Greenwood gives one of the best performances I’ve seen this year, and Williams, as always, is a constant surprise. The Gerry reference is spot on, though, not being a huge fan of the genre, I didn’t necessarily see this as a western.

  2. waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaait!

    ***** SPOILERS *****

    WHAT ABOUT THE END?!? we need to talk about the end!!!!!!!!!!

    also: why is the indian portrayed so caricaturishly? he talks to himself, falls in love with little objects in a basket in the middle of possibly being shot, behaves idiotically… WHAT’S WITH THAT REPRESENTATIONAL CHOICE????

  3. Re the Cayuse — there was a good Slate article on the language, and how Rondeaux plays it. But I think this review really nails the portrait–and much of what the film is up to–for me:

    “To frame the depiction of The Indian, it helps to take something that Wright says about myth making things simple: “perhaps the most characteristic feature of myths, as opposed to other stories, is that their images are structured into binary oppositions… These oppositions create the symbolic difference necessary for simplicity of understanding”. The Indian in Meek’s Cutoff, in contrast to this simplification, is demythologised; he is neither good nor bad, noble nor savage. We are given no definitive evidence as to whether he is helping or hindering them. He is simply an actual human being; not the cog in the machine that King outlined as being prevalent in Hollywood cinema. Having said this though, it is again important to remember that myth is still acknowledged via that eerie sound that we/Mrs Tetherow hear every time The Indian enters the narrative. The fundamental difference here, is that he is demythologised for us the viewer, but to Mrs Tetherow he is still an unknown entity; her thoughts are still in part formed through – despite their absurdity – the hyperbole of Meek’s stories.”

  4. Or to go back to something I initially posted: I don’t think he’s simple cartoon. I think we’re constantly seeing him through the eyes of Meek and the men, who we reject, but also through Emily, whose vision is just as skewed by the colonizing gaze. And our vision, too–the audience trained by genre and history has trouble seeing around. I very much LIKED how Rondeaux’s portrayal seemed distant from easy interpretation and resistant to mere Figurehead or Theme.

    I don’t have much to say about the ending, except that I liked the tension between historical and film-historical, kept alive by that ambiguity. The film seems always to challenge the assumptions of Meaning, instead resolutely returning us to what’s happening and to whom it’s happening. It cuts off because it doesn’t want the false comfort of closure. (And it’s an historical event, so my impulse was of course to go see what happened. I don’t think the film was ambiguous as much as resolutely aware that wherever it ends stands in relation to what happened, as well as all those myths of Manifest Destiny and closing Frontiers….)

  5. He is simply an actual human being.

    hmmm. i do understand the challenge of representing such an overdetermined character — the lone indian in the western — as “simply an actual human being,” but this human being is no ordinary human being. he’s a WEIRD human being. i, too, thought about the way in which he is SEEN — by the members of the convoy, by emily, by us — and thought about how one (a director, a writer) would go about confronting the audience’s inevitable prejudices, stereotypes, types, etc. this is certainly one way.

    but it’s a difficult choice to make, because most of the audience will just perceive him as savage and simple (you say he’s no “noble or savage,” but i think he leans heavily on the savage end).

    i told myself a story. here goes: the indian is alone, not with his people, not with other indians, because he’s crazy and his people have banned him from the community. this story makes sense of the film for me, and i like that i had to come up with my own story.

    but i worry about the audience — people who haven’t read alexie, vizenor, and those native authors who positively TAKE DOWN the “indian,” in fury or frustration or bitterness (i have come to realize that alexie is bitter). the audience is offered an indian who some indians might find offensive — and i wouldn’t blame ’em if they did. (alexie, by the way, is acknowledge in the credits, along with a gazillion others; i noticed him bc he was at the beginning, (A)lexie).

    i find it interesting that you wanted a complete story too, and went to look for how the journey ended. so what is the film doing? sending us to the internet or to our fantasy worlds, inviting us to make our own stories out of the scraps we are given?

    the film ends startlingly: meek says, apparently without sarcasm, that from now on tetherow, MRS. tetherow, and the indian are in charge of leading. WOW. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? WHERE DID ALL THE BRAGGADOCIO GO?

    meek’s pronouncement restores dignity to the woman and to the indian, but where does it come from? why is the tree so important? why is “the guy” defeated? has the uncertainty and ruthlessness of the land defeated the false superiority of white men?

    many questions from a really great film.

  6. I get you about the Indian’s “weirdness,” but I found ALL of these people weird. He seemed no more alien to me than the others…

    but I’ll think on this and the ending. Gotta run now. (Did you like it?)

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