Spoken in a whisper and shot at a reserved distance, Meek’s Cutoff reinterprets the American Western by shunning its adherence to the melodramatic, eschewing the genre’s nostalgia and morality in favor of sober observation. By reflecting the vague indifference of an arid environment, Kelly Reichardt dredges up the fear and compromise ineradicable from the homesteader experience, defining endurance as a triumph of deference over vainglory and prejudice.
Ushering in a weary monotony without preamble, the organic grace of Ellen Heuer’s foley work conjures a disorienting rhythm, hypnotizing the viewer through the babble of a rushing stream and the rustling of cloth against parched flora. The ambling human structures tied to the horizon amplify the alien and surreal ambience, particularly as they traverse aquatic bodies, each possession lifted overhead in exaltation to the detached, searing sun. As potable water evaporates and the party wanders off of The Oregon Trail, the blinding orb above takes on a spectral glow, shining a spotlight on indulgence and miscalculation with a sadist’s glee.
The architect of each collective oversight is Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a curmudgeonly guide hellbent on sniffing out a “second Eden,” willfully endangering his party at the behest of an unrestrained ego. As drunk on rage and pride as Melville’s Ahab, Meek revels in the “chaos and destruction” of the pilgrimage, utilizing this crafty gender metaphor to discount the recriminations of his female compatriots and legitimize his reckless abandon.
Meek’s foolhardy optimism and stubbornness occupy nocturnal conversation between his fellow emigrants, each opaque image as clandestine as the inaudible, disembodied discussion. Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) acts as Meek’s most vocal opponent, orchestrating discontent by firelight and advocating temperance, acting on her word by defending an injured Native American kneeling before the navigator’s shotgun. As suspicions rise and bent strings heighten anxious emotions, Emily’s faith in mankind proves to be no match for insatiable primal urges, sending the company caterwauling toward starvation on a wave of hysteria and intolerance.
Though the conclusion and its unhurried accumulation of tension provide little relief, both signify an ideological turning point, regarding Meek’s prostration before God and nature as a victory for humility. The lack of definition may infuriate a practical audience, but those unconcerned with closure will reap the benefit of texture and tone, extracting pleasure from the esoteric notes of the Native tongue and the allegorical lessons manifested in isolated environs and the sanctity of compassion.
Meek’s Cutoff (Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2010)
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Written by Jonathan Raymond
Photographed by Chris Blauvelt
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