Film Review: Meek's Cutoff,
Kelly Reichardt, 2011
"A bad cutoff for all that tuck it."
Diary entry of Samuel Parker, recorded in 1845 (Clark and Tiller, Terrible Trail: The Meek Cutoff, 1845, 1966)
"The desert is beautiful but it's 110 degrees. Everything's so unfriendly and prickly, and the fine dust gets in the vehicle engines. We were worried about the wagons, because they were from the period. In the end it was the cars that broke down; the wagons held up perfectly."
Kelly Reichardt interview reported in The Guardian 9 April 2011
"The actors inhabit their roles with total conviction, and the picture creates its own sense of time and space.....the spirit of Beckett hangs over ....Reichardt's film."
Philip French the Observer. 17 April 2011.
"'Meek's Cutoff' is built around a dialectic of freedom and constriction. The landscape is wide and vast - coastal plains, rippling mountains and high scrub stretching toward a distant horizon - but Ms. Reichardt and her cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, enclose it in a boxy, narrow frame." .
A.O. Scott, New York Times, 7 April 2011
Indie director Kelly Reichardt always brings an artistic eye to her films, though never more so than in the minimalist beauty and stark realism of "Meek's Cutoff." Hers is an unforgiving Old West pared to the bone - a lyrical poem for some, like watching paint dry for others. .
Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times. 22 April 2011
Meek's Cutoff,Kelly Reichardt, 2011
This is an exceptional film and fully deserves the plaudits which it has received. In the USA it was acclaimed as "bracingly original", "a new American classic", and "nearly perfect" (1) while in the UK it was lauded as "a bleak, enigmatic and masterful western" which "enlivens and illuminates a genre that once dominated the American cinema and still holds a considerable grip on our imagination." (2)
While the Western has undergone a number of changes in its conception, this film does not really fit into any of them. Philip French is reminded of such 'feminist' movies like Heartland (Richard Pearce, 1979) which emphasized the hardships of life for settlers and especially women in the mid nineteenth century on the Great Plains. Director Kelly Reichardt researched the diaries of women who travelled the Oregon Trail with Meek in the 1840s. "When you read these accounts you see just how much the traditional male viewpoint diminishes our sense of history. I wanted to give a different view of the west from the usual series of masculine encounters and battles of strength." (3) While Heartland is about homesteaders eking out an existence by farming in arid conditions, Meek's Cut Off follows the tortuous journey of a group of emigrants. In the wake of economic collapse in the East in the late 1830s families upped sticks and moved wholesale across to California and Oregon, attracted by the tales of the fertile land to be had once the Plains had been crossed. They loaded all their possessions into covered wagons, moved to Independence Missouri and joined other 'prairie schooners' in trains to travel down the Oregon Trail. As in the film the route was littered with possessions which were ditched when their importance diminished in the face of the harsh conditions. Sometimes there were tales of short cuts which would lessen the laborious journey, and one such 'Cut Off' was blazed by Stephen Meek in 1845.
Meek's Cutoff is more reductionist than revisionist, it is stark in its simplicity, with no frills or sensationalism, rather like a kitchen sink drama on the Great Plains, except the kitchen sink would soon have to be pushed out of the wagon to make it lighter. It is this minimalism which draws the comparison with Samuel Beckett from Philip French. In this sense artistically it is an example of current preoccupations with realism. Yet herein lies a problem with the film, for it is easy to slip from seeing it as realistic, as "what really happened", "accurate" or even worse as a "true story". Realism is just one artistic device and is intrinsically no better or worse at communicating ideas. If History tells us anything at all it is that History changes with time, its interpretation or even what is "known" alters. This is why I have a problem with the adoption by a few of the reviewers of the film's tagline contained within the advance publicity material: "Truer Grit". While one may easily see why those promoting the picture would seek to slipstream the Coen Brothers' excellent movie I think the use in reviews may promote the idea that we are seeing "what really happened". While suspension of disbelief is essential, to walk away with this notion is to be deluded, something I am sure the reviewers are not. The problem I have with this is that since the time of the events American popular culture has confused the History of the West with the Myth of the West and this is just as true of revisionist- and reductionist- Westerns as it was of the traditional ones, it is just that the more recent Westerns have just redefined the Myth. In this way Meek's Cutoff is not a "realistic" West is an example of how we want the West to have been, it is a current statement of the Myth by a very gifted director who uses realism to great effect.
Nowhere is this more true than in the portrayal of native Americans, for the Myth as portrayed initially in the film matches the traditional savage of the dime novel. This is particularly true of the lurid tales spread by Mountain Man Meek to the travellers who are scared to death by his detailed accounts of them "peeling your flesh". One reviewer is moved to describe the first meeting of the travellers with a native Cayuse thus: "This man's presence is blazingly vivid in its alienness, almost extra-terrestrial". Yet this is a great example of how reality is in the eyes of the beholder, for arguably it is the wagon train on the skyline or ribboning its way through the grasses which is out of kilter with the natural beauty of the natural surroundings. This is surely a wonderful example of what A.O. Scott calls "the dialectic of "freedom and constriction" - the artificial objects stand off the canvas in their incongruence. Contrast this to the Cayuse who emerges from and blends with this expansive background. Surely it is not he who is "almost extra terrestrial", it is those in the wagons are extra terrestrial. Academics have constructed a concept around this which refers to the Indian as "the Other" but it is part of the dialectic of the film that is to him that the desperate aliens turn, only to find that their lack of ability to communicate with him, let alone their environment contributes to their growing despair.
Not only is the Myth of the native American recast as the strong silent alien savage but also the myth of the frontier is recast. The traditional presentation of the western emigrants as pioneers who epitomised the spirit of building the United States out of their effort and toil is rewritten as being a selfless, isolated, relentlessly vulnerable life. Maybe this is not far removed from the previous myth but it is certainly not glamorised. Here there are no Fordian shindigs around the warming camp fire within the haven of the encircled wagons. Paradoxically although we perceive this realism as realistic History tells us that it is still a rewriting of the myth, it s just that it makes sense to the current perceptions and preoccupations of our culture.
This film has great beauty. The landscape is stunning and the incongruence of the with it is excruciating. I'm not sure that its lyrical poetry but it is certainly visual poetry, and it recreates the tedium, relentlessness and uncertainty of their journey into a vast unknown. I can't wait to see it again.
1. USA comments in order: A.O. Scott, New York Times, 7 April 2011 Mary Pols, Time, 7 April 2011 Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times. 22 April 2011.
2. UK comments are by Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 14 April 2011 and Philip French the Observer. 17 April 2011.
3. Kelly Reichardt interview Ryan Gilbey,The Guardian, 9 April 2011
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© Chris Smallbone February 2009