Tuesday 2 November 2010

Meek's Cutoff

The greatest disservice to Meek’s Cutoff is a persisting insistence of some reviewers to call it a Western. There is a difference between the genre conventions associated with “Western” and the mere fact that a movie is set in 1845 Oregon territory and features both ruddy men with guns on horses and a Native American. My viewing-context related talesfor this movie goes like this: this film made me realize that I deeply disrespect people who leave a theatre not because they find depicted violence too gruesome, not because they disagree with a political position a movie-maker takes, but because they are “bored” and find that the movie they picked out of a programme based on a vague description does not contain enough action scenes to hold their interest. This is not just disrespectful to those who made the movie or those who are remaining in their seat and have to endure a constant flow of people standing up and blocking their view in the process, but also, mostly, to the people outside who wanted to see the movie but did not get a ticket because it was sold out. The same goes to those who thought it was a brilliant idea to bring popcorn, by the way, because there is a reason why there are popcorn movies and movies that are not, in any way, shape or form, meant for popcorn.
An even more challenging moment for me came after the movie had ended, and with a person who had not left early: standing there, trying to put into words what I thought the movie was about and how it would have been impossible to enjoy if those small scenes had been buried in a louder, possibly more entertaining setting, this person said: couldn’t there at least have been a big fight at the end? Couldn’t the settlers have found a patch of green land to build their futures on? This left me completely speechless, because the thought that someone, anyone, would have expected an ending like this for this film, or any ending but the one it had, seems utterly ridiculous to me. 
Probably, the most useful information to have before watching it is that it is kind of like a 1845 version of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. In the beginning of the movie, we see a group of settlers walking through a river – not talking to each other, just quietly making their way to the other side. Their situation is revealed slowly, as we see the men argue amongst themselves (their dialogue, sometimes, intelligible to the audience), or the women look at them from the distance, being kept out of the conversation and only delivered fragments of what is going on later, in a more private setting, or not at all. They are following a veteran of the Indian wars, Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a man full of stories (“hell is full of bears”), who tells tales of his bravery but can’t seem to find the way, and, as the story unfolds, even more tragically, does not know where the next essential source of drinking water might be. The three men (played by Will Patton, Paul Dano and Neal Huff) do not trust him, but they do not really have a choice, the three women (Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, Michelle Williams) do not have a say in the matter, which becomes especially obvious when the viewer watches with them, from the distance. We realize that the dialogue is intelligible to us because it is to them: they can only guess what is happening, while the men make decisions about their futures. Meek’s Cutoff is particularly brilliant when it details the dreary everyday life of existing in a land with no people and no animals apart from some overhead birds: making sure that the wagons do not fall apart, while their squeaking wheels accompany the group like a ghost, preparing food, collecting wood for fires, in a landscape that has no trees (in that regard, it is similar to Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone).
The dynamics in the group have been established, not with dialogue, but by perspective, with the way that the peoples in the story carry themselves, and probably even more by the things that are not talked about than by the things that are discussed. Then, a new element enters the stage and upsets the order: Emily (Michelle Williams) sees a Cayuse (Rod Rondeux). She runs to get a gun to alert the men who are off to search for water, he runs away for his own reasons. A few days later, after hopes for water have been once again disappointed when the group finds a saline lake, they spot the Cayuse again in the distance, and Meek and Emily’s husband capture him. This causes a divide in the group: Emily’s husband insists that they keep him because he might know where water is, Meek, untrusting of “Indians”, wants to kill him. The women disapprove of his presence because he is “not even fully clothed” (one of the most remarkable things about the movie is the quiet situational humour that leaves the audience slightly unsettled: Emily taking forever to re-load the musket, the visible discomfort of Zoe Kazan’s character at the Cayuse otherness, and the Cayuse amusement at the settler’s otherness and inability to deal with the terrain).
Soloman’s argument that the group has no other choice but to try and get the stranger to help wins over Meek’s argument that this will get them killed, and thusly, the inability of the group to communicate or understand the Cayuse begins. This is an argument against the idea that understanding each other only takes work, because the Cayuse remains inexplicable to even those who try, out of curiosity or a sense of identification (after all, the women of the group are marginalized too – at one point, there is a vote, and it took me a beat to realize that of course, only the men would be able to participate). Emily stays close to him, watches him as he carves his symbols into stones, she mends his shoes (“I want him to owe me something”, she explains to the horrified Millie) listens to him when he speaks in the language she does not understand (at one point, she thinks she does understand, but it turns out to be wrong). It remains unclear whether the Cayuse understands the appeal of the settlers for water. As they move on and their need for water becomes greater (the scarcity is hinted at in scenes where characters turn down a sip of water to preserve it, to the point of complete exhaustion), the mistrust within the group grows. Some suspect that the Cayuse is secretly marking their way with his symbols, Soloman argues that he is merely performing his religious ritual, conversing with his god in his own way that remains inaccessible to the group. In the closest thing to a classic Western showdown the film provides, Emily stands up against Meek, who wants to shoot the Cayuse: She points a gun at him and seems perfectly willing to shoot the man who has done nothing to deserve her trust more than the stranger. It seems like this is her way of claiming a right to participate in the decision-making process that has been denied to her.
In the end, the group just walks on. The message carved into wood at the beginning of the movie resonates: there is a thin line between lost and only finding your way, and the viewer will never find out which one of these holds true. Meek declares that they do no longer hold the power to make their own destiny: it has all already been decided, and they are following a way that has been laid out for them.

2010, directed by Kelly Reichardt, starring Michelle Williams, Rod Rondeaux, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Zoe Kazan, Tommy Nelson, Will Patton.

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