I get excited when a film opens without dialogue, for it challenges me to interpret meaning through action and location – which is, cinematically speaking, a different language entirely. Consider the first scenes of Meek’s Cutoff, which takes place in 1845 and tells the story of three families trekking west along the Oregon Trail. First, we watch as they wade across a river, which is no small feat when you’re travelling with steer, horses, donkeys, and wagons. We then see various shots of menial tasks, such as pinning laundry to a clothesline, scrubbing out pans with rinsing them out in the river, and gathering dead twigs for firewood. Even after the first lines of dialogue are spoken, most of the film is structured according to a pattern of drudgery and tedium. This isn’t a criticism; rather than romanticize the Old West, director Kelly Reichardt is brave enough to depict it as it actually was.
Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond develops the characters in the most interesting of ways. We given almost no information about them – where they came from, why they’re following the Oregon Trail, where they’re going, what they hope to find when they arrive – but every moment they’re onscreen, they could not be any clearer, any more human. Reichardt’s previous film, the languid but engaging Wendy and Lucy, worked in much the same way. Amazing, how her characters can be so mysterious and yet so understandable. It’s said that 60 to 90% of communication is nonverbal, depending on who you read; Reichardt is the only current director I know of to successfully use body language as dialogue. Written dialogue is reserved for only those moments when it’s absolutely necessary. You’d be surprised the volumes that can be spoken without actual words.
In the film, three families form a wagon team. These are: Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams and Will Patton); Millie and Thomas Gately (Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano); and Glory and William White (Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff), and their son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson). Their guide is a long-haired, long-bearded mountain man named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), whose whisky-burned voice is like sandpaper to the ears. He leads the families down an unmarked path in the high plain desert, believing it to be a shortcut; although he remains confident in his ability to guide them, it’s obvious that they’re lost. As they grapple with the harsh realities of the wilderness – the heat, the dwindling supplies of food and water – they discover they’re being followed by a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux), and they take him prisoner.
Meek immediately decides it would be best to kill the Indian, whose name is never revealed. He says the Cayuse are savage even by Indian standards, and that for every one you see, there are dozens more hiding. Solomon takes a more practical approach; the Indian may be able to lead them to a water source. The men vote on it (yes, only the men) and the consensus is that they should take the Indian with them, despite the fact that he doesn’t speak English, nor they his language. And so he trudges at the head of the team, leading them God knows where – hopefully towards water. He will continuously arouse their suspicions, simply by virtue of who he is. It would be too much to say that Emily learns to trust him; even when she feeds him or repairs a hole in one of his moccasins, she claims it’s only because she wants him to owe her something. Still, she shows more compassion than anyone else in the team, and she will ultimately defend him when the situation grows dire.
In writing this plot synopsis, I’ve made the film sound ordinary, if not altogether uninspired. Indeed, the very notion of white emigrants holding a wandering Indian captive is rife with opportunities for sermonizing. Reichardt wisely avoids all temptations. The film isn’t about bridging cultural gaps. If it were, the families would not be simple folk driven by Manifest Destiny. And someone would have bothered to provide subtitles for the Indian. No, the film is really about uncertainty; the wagon team has to choose between following Meek, who’s clearly unreliable, or the Indian, who they were conditioned to treat as the enemy. He leads the team to a hill. What lies beyond it? It could be a lake or river. Then again, it could be an army of his tribe, waiting to slaughter them. “Blood or water,” Meek says.
One of the more interesting touches is the film’s 4:3 aspect ratio, which went out of style following the 1953 release of Shane, the first film to be projected in a flat widescreen format. This works in its favor, since the intention was not to display gorgeous panoramic vistas of western landscapes; its confinement effectively conveys the isolation and fear the characters live in. Even the wide shots feel strangely constricted. Perhaps it’s to show that, out in the unforgiving wilderness, nothing will change in the pursuit of Manifest Destiny; if anything, you will only be consumed. Meek’s Cutoff does not have heroes, villains, or even those who are morally ambiguous. It’s merely has people of different backgrounds in a struggle to survive. Sometimes, there doesn’t need to be anything more.
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