Dir:- Kelly Reichardt
Starr:- Bruce Greenwood, Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Rod Rondeaux
In 2006 I went along to see a movie called Old Joy, primarily because it had the talented alt-country performer Will Oldham in it. I had no idea who Kelly Reichardt was and had seen nothing else by the filmmaker. Old Joy was a beautifully shot, quiet rumination on people who no longer seem to fit into the society of others. It featured an intensely lyrical sequence in which the two friends at the heart of the movie (Oldham and Daniel London) bathed in a natural hot spring and silently communed both with the lush Oregon wilderness and each other. This short, self-contained piece of cinema ended with the achingly tragic image of a ‘lonely’ Oldham, stumbling the streets of Portland, a creature cut out of his ‘natural’ environment.
For some reason, despite falling in love with this simple and spare film, I didn’t trawl back into Reichart’s filmography and allowed her 2008 effort Wendy and Lucy, also with Michelle Williams, to completely bypass me (something I will shortly remedy). Thankfully, the same fate did not befall Reichardt’s impressive minimalist Western, Meek’s Cutoff.
Reichardt is very much a local filmmaker, who seems infinitely fascinated with the Pacific Northwest. The film Meek’s Cutoff is loosely based on the hellish 1845 trek west undertaken by a band of pioneer families and guided by the 19th Century frontiersman Stephen Meek. The title of the film is derived from the road Meek discovered, off the main Oregon trail, that avoided the supposedly dangerous Indian lands in the Blue Mountains. It also acts as a perfect summation of the action of the film, as Stephen Meek (played under thick facial hair by an almost unrecognisable Bruce Greenwood) blindly leads a small band of families through the harsh prairie lands and desert wilderness of the Oregon High Desert.
Each of the three families have their own wagon, livestock and limited provisions, but little else. Reichardt opens the film on an embroidered patchwork still, telling the audience this is the Oregon Trail 1845. Throughout the film Reichardt focuses on these little objects of domesticity, such as kettles, blankets, handlooms and wash bowls, frequently framing her families in isolated tight shots, mid-conversation. A wordless opening seven minutes sees the families gathering water from a stream and struggling to find a fording point for their wagons. In less than ten minutes Reichardt has fully established the terrain, it’s wild, sprawling, natural emptiness, as the dominant character within the movie, utterly dwarfing and subsuming these tiny human forms that cling to survival within its maw. It is reminiscent of this year’s The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick, in the way that it sets about placing humanity in an ever-diminishing relationship to the powerful, natural elements that move the universe.
When the film does give us its first moments of dialogue, they are from the Book of Revelation, and specifically the section on the Tree of Life. The reading is given by the young son of Shirley Henderson’s Scottish pioneer, and it evokes a strong sense of foreboding with its dwelling upon the eating of flesh to survive. It is through this indirect sourcing of the ghoulish folklore and myth that has grown up around much of this early frontier Trail experience, that Reichardt cranks up a brooding atmosphere of growing paranoia and fear.
An early sequence features a perfectly executed cinematic slow dissolve, between one landscape shot and another. Not only does it underscore the unvarying nature of the landscape, but it also suggests a ghostly presence, as if we are already witnessing the dead, the lost, the forsaken. It is one of many such visually dynamic and arresting shots with which Reichardt gradually illustrates the enduring nightmare these people find themselves in.
The braggart character of Meek, is openly mistrusted by a few of the pioneers, particularly Michelle Williams’ Emily. At the beginning of the film they feel that he has deserted them, but when he reappears to offer them his sage guidance toward a source of water, far from being grateful, the pioneers seem to doubt his abilities to navigate the terrain, despite his repeated assertions that he knows the landscape. Reichardt toys with the idea that Meek is not to be trusted. As well as the imposing nature of the landscape through which the families wander, there is also the ancillary fear that Meek is not just leading them blindly through this wilderness, but is actually guiding them into the hands of bandits, robbers, or Indians.
Adding to the grim array of prospects lining up in front of the pioneers, is Emily’s insistence that they are being scouted by an Indian on horseback. Eventually the Indian (played inscrutably by Rod Rondeaux) shows himself and Meek and Solomon (played by Will Patton) hunt him down. Meek wants to kill the Indian, trying to shock the pioneers with his tales of ‘heathen’ brutality, given a little more weight than they would otherwise possess by referring to specific tribal characteristics of different Paiute Indians. However, Emily and Solomon resist his desire to execute the Indian and the younger pioneer, called Thomas (There Will Be Blood’s Paul Dano in a minor role) attempts to communicate via barter. The idea that the pioneer’s have is for the Indian to guide them to water, much to Meek’s chagrin.
From this point onwards the movie operates along three narratives of increasing paranoia. First of all there is the intense paranoia that develops in Thomas and his wife Millie (played by Elia Kazan’s granddaughter Zoe) toward the Indian ‘interloper’. Millie becomes convinced that the Indian is leading them further into peril, as well as communicating their route to his tribespeople through the various drawings and inscriptions he is leaving on rocks and in the sand. Then there is the growing fear of Meek’s possibly violent and mercenary nature, ultimately leading to the stand-off between Meek, the Indian and Emily. Finally there is the unceasing and energy-sapping conditions of the nature that surrounds them.
I’ve never before come across a film that so carefully accrues subtle visual details to such a devastating atmospheric effect. The isolation of the characters from each other, is juxtaposed against their remote location at the centre of wide-lens shots of desert and plain. The landscape appears to be devouring them. Reichardt also goes to great lengths to illustrate the ‘alien’ nature of Indian to European settler, as well as European settler to Indian. Rondeaux’s character is frequently framed in extreme close-up, with an unreadable expression upon his face, or he is almost hidden within the wide shots, showing how much more attuned to survival in these conditions he is.
The screenwriter Jon Raymond, who also wrote Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, as well as the award-winning HBO adaptation of Mildred Pierce, does a remarkable job of simply overhearing snippets of dialogue. Conversations are rarely shown to begin when a scene begins, and often comments are made without the necessary context by which an audience might make more coherent sense of them. In this way the audience is being made to experience some of the disorienting nature of the predicament the pioneers find themselves in.
In one of the lengthier scenes of dialogue, Meek espouses his belief that women are ‘chaos’ and men are ‘destruction’. For Meek chaos brings life into the world, with its rampant abundance, but it is destruction that orders and cleanses. In this weirdly primitive chauvinism and Meek’s tendency toward the pessimistic (he is often heard to talk about the hellishness of existence) Raymond appears to be demonstrating the fearsome, altering grip with which this ‘nature’ seizes hold of human personality.
Although Meek’s name is within the title of the movie, it is with the terrain that has now taken his name that Reichardt appears to be really interested. Of the characters that are most clearly defined, it is the women (Emily, Millie and Glory) who are shown to toil and struggle with survival most keenly. In the final sequence, that brings the narrative almost full-circle, we have seen one of the men collapse from dehydration and heat exhaustion, whilst Meek himself has resigned from grappling with the pretence of understanding this forbidding landscape. A powerful closing image shows only one of the characters persisting, moving onward, venturing forth into the continuing expanse of grim brush and sand, whilst the rest of the group, all but cling to the Tree of Life.