Some of us know the Oregon Trail as a two-dimensional game of forest and lime green, where someone on your team dies of dysentery, but it’s okay because your parents will be picking you up sharply at three. Now that we’re adults most of us know that’s not the real Oregon Trail. If you want to simulate the authentic bleakness of life on the trail replete with anxiety, fatigue and the potential of facing death in an unmarked land due to dehydration, leave it to filmmaker Kelly Reichardt to be the one to introduce you.
The skillfully understated Reichardt joins up again with screenwriter Jon Raymond (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) to give us Meek’s Cutoff—a portrait of the Oregon Trail as both a place and an idea, back when the west was an uncharted strange land off in the distance, waiting to be found.
Meek’s opens with a group of settlers crossing a river. An early image: one of the women is chest-deep in the water holding up a bird cage with a yellow canary inside. The canary shines like a golden coin against the washed-out landscape as a symbol of hope, colonial dreams, and the persisting conflict between freedom and captivity. A wild creature inside a cage. This initial image portends almost all of what’s to come.
Based on the diaries of real women on the Oregon Trail, Meek’s takes place in 1845, and it follows three families of settlers who have separated from a larger group deciding to follow a guide named Stephen Meek, who becomes less and less credible as the movie progresses, stranding the travelers in a wilderness unknown. Along the way, water is running out, and they come upon a lone Cayuse Indian (Ron Rondeaux) who they capture; instead of killing him, they try to use him to help guide them to water and hopefully towards their destination. But the Indian only speaks Nez Perce, and is more than indifferent to their quest; he seems glad to let them perish.
The pressurized situation of being stranded and running out of water reveals the characters’ personalities as they’re pushed to their physical and psychological limits. They lose a wagon, and remember that canary from the opening scene? The beacon of hope? Well a swift shot of an empty bird cage swinging from the back of a wagon lets you know that there’s nothing to chirp about any more.
The settlers’ last hope seems to be the Cayuse Indian, and the only character who reaches out to him (its unclear if her motivations are purely altruistic, conniving, or a healthy blend of both) is a young wife named Emily Tetherow played with measure by Michelle Williams. Williams totally gets Reichardt’s vision, and portrays the character of Emily with such unsentimentality, you couldn’t shed a tear if you tried. If you don’t get out to the movies much, here’s a tip: just go see whatever Michelle Williams is in.
To add to the film’s inherent anxiety, Reichardt chose to shoot the film in the tight 4:3 Academy ratio, instead of widescreen, directing the viewer into the moment at hand. This forces us to see the wide-open plain as a trap. Which is not to say the film isn’t visually beautiful; cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt manages to bring light to this barren land, and often times the portraits of the three women in their dailyness, gathering sticks, walking across the plain, feel like Andrew Wyeth paintings come to life.
Meek’s may have all the dressings of a western: guns, horses, wagons, but this isn’t what you expect from a Western. What kind of Western sheds no blood? What kind of Western focuses almost exclusively on female characters? What kind of Western seems almost wedded to tedium?
The term “revisionist western” applies to films that take the optimism and foolhardiness of a traditional western and subvert them with historical underpinnings. Reichardt goes the extra step of stripping the genre down to its knickers. “Going West” has often been glamorized as something filled with hope and drama, but what was it really like, physically and psychologically? What complicated interior dilemmas did that journey actually encompass?
This is also a feminist film that eschews male authority in general; the notion that men have it under control and can be in charge of all major decision-making is completely turned upside down during the course of the film’s events. The character with the most mettle turns out to be Emily. She’s the only one who shoots a gun. While everyone else falls apart or proves incompetent, she retains her reserve and cleverness throughout the film.
Now, we should get to the whole “boring” part (notice the italics and quotes). There’s was a flurry surrounding just how boring Meek’s Cutoff is when it came out. From Dan Kois’s “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables” to Mahnola Dargis and A.O. Scott’s “In Defense of the Slow and Boring,” the idea of a film’s ultimate purpose arises. I suppose it’s true that very little happens in Meek’s Cutoff, but that’s only if you need every second of every frame to be filled with noise, visual or otherwise. Not only does Reichardt have a preternatural ability to stretch every moment far past its breaking point, she also seems to hesitate using language, motion, plot, and anything else that might get in the way of open contemplation. When people describe Meek’s as boring—what they really seem to be saying is that it makes them have to personally bear so much silence. Meek’s is slow and unfilled because it’s attempting to question the actual experience of history instead of answering it. What was it like to set out in a world completely unknown? To follow nothing more than a promise? To embody the idea of blind faith?
In the end, it turns out that the cutoff in Meek’s Cutoff has less to do with the breaking point of the settlers and more to do with that of contemporary movie-going audiences. After exiting the theatre where I watched Meek’s, a man outside flagged me down seeking confirmation, “There wasn’t enough action, right? RIGHT!?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him the answer he wasn’t looking for, “Maybe there wasn’t supposed to be.”
But what he said points to a truth—Reichardt’s films are directly addressed at our abilities to watch films. Movies tend to shy away from monotony. They seem almost desperate to please you. Not this one. Instead of speeding things up, Reichardt amplifies the chore-like living of this quest. Her goal seems to be to inhabit the realness of life—the mundane, the uncomfortable, the daily. To ask us: Could a film open us up to our world before we were here?
Meek’s is a Western we’ve never seen before. It’s a mystery, a lyric documentary, and here the references to Malick seem apt. While they are distinctly different filmmakers, this movie is clearly reminiscent of Malick’s The New World in that it explores similar territory: the world before we knew it.
Because compared to the world of 1845, our world is so known. To watch the settlers labor towards a new destiny without any previous knowledge, compass, or map, every sight new and full of threat, opens us to the vast, complex mystery that is history. There’s something thrilling about watching Reichardt take the glamour and idealism of the classic western and bring it to its aching knees. We all know that the journey was rough and unpleasant, even though we don’t access that knowledge regularly. The local PDX coffee shop where people laze about with their latte was probably once a spot where settlers died of dehydration. And because we are so tuned out, and our lives are so comparatively easy now, those bleak and brave 1845 days have been revived in the most beautiful boredom, for us to endure.
After all, they endured it for us.