Kelly Reichardt’s film Meek’s Cutoff was released in 2010 to great critical acclaim. It fictionalizes the lives of a group of settlers under the direction of a man named Stephen Meek traveling West on the Oregon Trail in 1845. Although nominally a Western, the film in fact deconstructs the conventions of the genre, even as it tells an allegorical story about the roots of American mythology and the erosion of traditional American values during the second Iraq war. Beautifully shot and painstakingly constructed, the film is worthy of serious, and ongoing, discussion.
Here we present a conversation discussing a number of the film’s more interesting aspects.
Michael Smith: Kelly Reichardt initially came to my attention with her film Wendy and Lucy (2008)—I immediately noticed a sensitivity to social issues and also a relatively spartan aesthetic. She relied on long takes and came across as a patient filmmaker and storyteller. Meek’s Cutoff is a more complete realization of that aesthetic. The opening shots alone are extraordinary in that they don’t constitute a narrative exposition so much as establish the physical nature of a journey being taken by several pioneer families. Using static, relatively long takes, Reichardt shows them performing tasks: crossing a river, drying their clothes, fetching water from a stream, cleaning dishes. These all seem mundane, which is exactly the point. Part of the experience of this film is becoming familiar with the sheer punishment of the Oregon Trail, how the movement westward was full of not only considerable challenges but also what might be called elongation. After the initial sequences, Reichardt employs a beautiful, very slow dissolve in which a wagon train gradually appears on the horizon, and then she cuts to a night shot as clouds slowly move in real time. The journey already seems endless, even though, as viewers, it’s just started for us.
Two of my favorite sequences in the first third of the film involve Glory White (Shirley Henderson), one of the wives in this small band of pioneer families, chasing her wind-swept bonnet across a dry expanse of land, and Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), the film’s central character, later firing off warning shots with a rifle. The latter seems like an eternity as Tetherow loads the gun, fires it, and then reloads again, and Reichardt films the action entirely in an uninteruppted single take. Too many filmmakers would be tempted to compose these sequences out of multiple shots, most likely including close-ups of the objects themselves, but Reichardt employs an economy that is precise and intelligent. Not only is this journey physically demanding, it requires considerable fortitude and patience. Her aesthetic is entirely in harmony with the subject matter.
There’s a greater achievement, though, beyond her technique and manner of storytelling. With Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt deconstructs, even demythologizes, the notion of a triumphalist Westward expansion. The very physical nature of this film is evidence of this; Reichardt and her screenwriter, Jonathan Raymond, do not romanticize the American landscape—it is its own punishing challenge, which these people cannot overcome. But, more than that, these families are lost, and their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), seems increasingly unreliable. Water becomes scarce; they come to trust in Meek even less. Most of all, though, is their encounter with this lone Native American man (Rod Rondeaux), whom they immediately see as a threat and a savage, in part because they’re already carrying constructed notions about Native Americans, in part because their own religiously prescribed customs compel them to interpret the Indian’s manner of dress and his behavior as “evidence” of his apparent lack of grace. Their fear of him and, more importantly, their increasing dependence on him (so much so that Emily does him favors as a form of negotiation) are some of the elements that undermine older ideas about the triumphs of Westward movement—and within this deconstruction are further ideas about cultural misunderstanding, which carry their own political subtext. I’m interested in this aspect of the film not only because I think Reichardt succeeds so admirably purely as a filmmaker here but also because, when you think about it, the Western itself is a myth anyway, a constructed form full of purposely selected elements that offer accounts that have their own implicit political or philosophical subtexts. I’d be curious to know, Scott, what you make of this and how you see Meek’s Cutoff within this larger notion of what the Western is all about.
Scott Esposito: Agreed very much on Reichardt’s long takes. I think it should be stressed here how difficult it is to make a compelling film with takes that last as long as Reichardt’s do, particularly when your average viewer is now inundated with frenetic film and television that is almost hopelessly addicted to short edits. The result here is a very beautiful and meditative film in which Reichardt, nonetheless, still has the capacity to give a viewer very strong emotions. The sequence you highlight where Emily fires the two warning shots is incredibly potent. You’re absolutely right that the tendency would be to compose the action with shorter takes and disorientating cuts. By showing us the long, tedious process of reloading the shotgun, Reichardt does something that feels entirely true to her vision of the film, and the length of the take brings out the sheer tension and anxiety in that moment. More than that, it pushes us into the uneasy relationship between boredom and terror.
That brings me to your remarks about the Western. This is a very American genre, probably the most uniquely American genre of film, and I don’t think it’s coincidental at all that Reichardt is deconstructing it at a time when America, as a nation, is seriously questioning many of the things that the Western mythologizes. Many of the themes and techniques that she used to great effect in Wendy and Lucy (isolation, loneliness, existential doubt, loss of narrative) have flowered in a remarkable way in Meek’s Cutoff. Reichardt lets us feel all of these sensations in a very personal way in the lives of the pioneers, but she also pushes them into a commentary on the American myth of the West and the ongoing erosion of the American values that myth once propagated.
Strangely, Reichardt seems to give us an inversion of the Western. What I mean by that is that I’d consider the classic, “John Wayne” style Western to be a very postmodern brand of film. In those you have very obviously constructed environments and scenarios that play on a mass perception of what the West was “about.” This, to me, is deeply postmodern in the way that a sit-com is postmodern: a sit-com appropriates scenarios from daily life that we associate with certain kinds of drama or comedy and then patches them together into a sit-com reality. The Western of the ’50s and ’60s does the same thing with our perceptions of what the settling of the West was all about—shootouts! Cattle rustling! Bandits! Drinking liquor from shot glasses! But with Meek’s Cutoff you have a Western that completely dispenses with all of that and instead gives us something that feels much truer to what the actual experience of settling the West must have been like. Lots of boredom, doubt, struggle, pain. The values and ideals that the typical Western takes for granted—rugged independence, courage, capitalism, justice—are in Meek’s Cutoff in a very difficult state of emergence. And that’s a lot of what makes this film feel genuine and valuable.
Michael Smith: Scott, the Western is indeed the quintessential American genre, and that’s a very salient point you make about how the classic studio Western is inherently postmodern. As a cinematic genre, the Western has evolved and has had a variety of forms, including the celebrated work of John Ford and of course Sergio Leone. But in being truer to the very experience of westward expansion, Reichardt has indeed done a thorough inversion here. In a way, as we’re both essentially saying, the very experience of watching it is an inversion too; that is to say, films have within them their own patterns, tropes, common techniques, and narrative structures, but so too does the experience of watching them; viewing has its own narrative logic, based on audience expectations, and this is particularly true of genre films, which rely on our expectations and previous viewing experiences more than other kinds of films. Meek’s Cutoff, interestingly, accomplishes these kinds of inversions and then compounds them with a political subtext that questions American triumphalism in another way: how American foreign policy and contact and conflict with other cultures have led to results similar to those experienced by the film’s characters. When the film was initially released, some saw it as Reichardt’s implicit commentary on American policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, which seemed to begin in a sure-footed fashion, only to be undone by cultural misunderstandings, unforeseen consequences, and a loss of direction. I think the political subtext in the film is actually subtle, mainly in the sense that as a cinematic experience and as a narrative the film can exist independent of that subtext. But I think the subtext is still there in this following sense: just as Meek’s Cutoff offers an inversion of that Western genre, just as it demythologizes westward expansion, it raises questions about the direction of this country in current times. I don’t find it to be an overtly or even self-consciously political film, honestly (even if Reichardt and Raymond intended it to be); I think it almost provides this subtext as an incidental side-note. But it’s still a compelling idea, in the sense that narrative art is so often of its own time.
The film’s other inversion of the Western is in its look. You had reminded me during previous conversations about Meek’s Cutoff that the visual style directly recalls the photography of Richard Misrach. John Ford might have used the same Academy ratio that Reichardt did; we might think of classic Westerns, such as those of Leone, and their widescreen presentation of landscape. But Reichardt uses a different form of compression. It’s interesting that she is able to capture the openness of the landscape using that 1.33:1 ratio but, in so doing, also boxing in and compressing physical space and “experiential” space. It’s difficult to describe this verbally, but the landscape along the Oregon Trail here seems simultaneously expansive and closed-in. Reichardt intensifies the experience by altering the landscape and her shots as the situation for these families becomes even more dire, and they become more dependent upon the lone Native American man. Of course, they find that they are entirely at his mercy; and in that there’s another inversion in which the subdued becomes an almost unwilling conqueror. But as this develops, the terrain changes; cliff walls appear, the mountains on the horizon surround the valley. Even then, if Reichardt had been less precise in her framing, the color palette and the aesthetic alone make this a film simply worth looking at.
(Richard Misrach’s photos of the American West)
Watching the film and experiencing its central drama (and, also, that inversion of the Western) are unique in another sense: I think this is a deeply deterministic story. Stephen Meek says just as much at the film’s great, existential ending, when he gives the sense that their plight was essentially destined. And even if he is not the most reliable of commentators in the same way that he proved not to be the most reliable of travel guides, the film still bears a nearly oppressive deterministic feel. These characters most likely understood in advance the challenges of overland travel and of the potential dangers (both human and natural) they would face along the way; but the landscape, the distance, the physical punishment, the characters’ cultural proclivities and customs, the history that preceded them (in that the conflict between settlers and Native Americans already influences their contact with the Native American man) all proceed in a way that makes their fate inevitable. In that, I don’t think the film has to have our agreement or complicity. In other words, as viewers we might reject determinism, might see it as false. But that’s what’s so compelling about cinema, about art—it does not have to present the world as we see it. In so doing, in a way it becomes even experiential and perhaps existential because it provides an alternate vision. I found the film’s implicit determinism to be its most powerful element, actually. That Reichardt and her screenwriter were able to explore that determinism in such a methodical and beautiful way make the film all that more accomplished.
Scott Esposito: To start, I’d like to mention another way that Reichardt compresses space in this film. Throughout, she lets sounds from outside the frame wander into her shots. So, for instance, in one of the initial campfire scenes, where Glory’s son Jimmy is reading out loud from the Bible, Reichardt’s camera moves around the camp to show us what the various settlers are doing in their rest time, but you still continue to hear Jimmy reading. The invocation of the Bible in a child’s voice makes a beautiful counterpoint to the ambiguous, lonely shots, and it gives a closed-in, “together” feeling to the camp. Or another example is the omnipresent creak of the wagon wheels, which will continually be audible as the settlers walk westward throughout the film.
The landscape plays in to the sense of determinism that you’re talking about. This is an enormous stretch of land that they’re traversing, and once they have gone past a certain pint there’s simply no possibility of return. Once they have endured so many trials to come to far, it would just be unthinkable to turn around, and probably suicidal. I’d argue that, geographically, we’ve lost that sense in the modern world; there are very few places that might still entrap us in a world filled with automobiles, airplanes, and gigantic, ocean-going vessels. Of course, this is where the allegory comes in, because if we’ve lost that sense geographically, we still do have it morally and spiritually. I think this passage through the moral point of no return is something that America has experienced in the past decade, to our great national disgrace, and Reichardt is obviously evoking it here with her lost travelers. That Reichardt is able to inscribe this failure onto the geography of the Old West is a singular achievement, and she does it, as you point out, without being heavy-handed or overly allegorical. The film can be read as an allegory of contemporary America, but it need not be.
The relationship between Meek and the Native is extremely fascinating. In my reading, much of Meek’s bloodlust for the Native’s head doesn’t come from fear or suspicion so much as the fact that, on some level, Meek understands that the Native is slowly wresting control of the group from him. For a man like Meek, a rugged, individualistic type who believes in the greatness of his own personal legend, such an encounter would be anathema to his sense of identity. And in Emily, who has a much more ambiguous relationship to the Native, you see a very different kind of response to an encounter with a moral and social order that is fundamentally alien and obscure. What I mean by that is that Emily and the Native can’t even talk to each other, much less try to explain their respective cultures, so it’s a very profound sense of difference. I think we would have to try very hard to find such a profound sense of Otherness in our own world, where even prehistoric tribes have been discovered and more or less situated into the postmodern order. Emily responds to this profound sense of Otherness by alternatively trying to teach the Native capitalism and becoming seduced by what the Native might represent. This battle between domesticating and embracing the Native recapitulates on a small scale the sense of existential longing that must have driven all of the settlers out of their familiar lives and into the unknown.
And I think this is where a lot of the Biblical/Eden references that we find throughout the film come in to play: this is very much a film about being driven out of the Garden, or perhaps trying to return to the Garden. That final shot of the tree is so ambiguous in so many ways. Have they found water or not? Is the tree alive or dead? Is it the Tree of Knowledge, or just a tree? And if the former, just what knowledge has been acquired? In some ways, it doesn’t really matter, as the film is more about dramatizing the search than any discovery—and I think Reichardt would argue that any conclusion would just be temporary anyway—yet the Bible has provided people with a narrative, a sort of arc for their lives and a conclusion, so it’s telling that the settlers still believe in it to an extent, and that Reichardt seems to as well by grounding her film in it.
Michael Smith: These characters are definitely out of the Garden, way out of it—the Garden being a metaphor for whatever kind of certainty or comfort they had before their journey, or whatever kind of comfort they had hoped to find along the way. It’s interesting that Reichardt and Raymond chose to emphasize the section from Genesis in which God banishes Adam and Eve from Eden; that lapse or fall parallels in some ways the experience of these characters, while it also stresses their own cultural habits or proclivities. I hadn’t quite thought of Meek’s relationship to the Native American man in the way that you explain it, but I think you’re absolutely right. Meek does understand that this “enemy” will gradually control the entire group. But the rest of the group fears him for a variety of reasons, including religious ones. He’s different in every aspect, from his customs and appearance to his own unspoken religious assumptions; he’s a pagan, a heathen, a savage, someone who is fallen in his own way for not being like them, physically as well as culturally. In that sense, he becomes even more of a threat. The group’s religious values are also important in the way in which they relate to each other and within the structure of their own families. They’re clearly patriarchal. The men guide and instruct; they speak among themselves in hushed tones and make decisions, and only then inform their wives. But out here in the open wilderness, outside that Garden, even these foundations become shaken. Emily begins to assert herself as a defender of the group, as someone who tries to bargain with the Native man, and as someone who briefly challenges Meek’s own assumptions about women. Reichardt’s treatment of religion here is very interesting; it binds these people but it also completely unravels. While they never state this, I think we can safely assume that their own certainty about God’s providence withers as their journey lengthens and as they become lost. They’re way out of Eden—or there is no Eden at all.
To me, the tree that they find at the film’s close is a temporary sign of relief or hope, only yet again to be undermined by Meek and the Native American man: a sign of life that ultimately does nothing for them, as Meek announces that all of this misfortune seems entirely destined and that the Native is entirely in control. Again, the political subtext is there, but even more powerfully is that determinism. It’s interesting to see a Western containing Biblical references ultimately resigning its characters to an inevitable fate; there is no individualist triumph, no Providence, no overcoming. Again, Reichardt and Raymond are altering and questioning the very form of the Western and its attendant mythologies.
Scott Esposito: What with talk of the Tree and the Garden, we’re getting close to the end here, but I don’t think we can finish our conversation without some attention to that incredible sequence that comes just before the party eventually happens onto the tree in the final scene. I’m of course referring to the part where Meek and his charges, now desperate for water, have convinced themselves that the Native is telling them that there is water just on the other side of a very steep ravine. The crossing of the ravine is an extremely risky thing, but the idea of water just over the far hill is much too seductive for them to resist, so they decide to chance it. Two wagons make the trip to the bottom of the ravine successfully, but on the third they lose their grip, and it careens down wildly and becomes smashed to bits. What follows this is probably the only prototypically Western scene in the entire film, where Meek aims his revolver at the Native in a fit of rage, and Emily steps in on the Native’s behalf, pointing at Meek the same shotgun she used to fire those two warning shots when she first saw the Native.
The scene where the wagon breaks has always put me in mind of the falling of the Twin Towers. It has that same sense of hopelessness and misfortune—all the settlers can do is just watch it self-destruct—and you can also read it as the Native’s own version of asymmetric warfare, essentially goading them into destroying their own property. But that is to assume that the Native understands Meek and his party enough to comprehend that a loss of property would hurt them grievously. This is, of course, running a huge danger of imposing our understanding of the world onto him. Has he seen enough Westerners to understand what property means and how much its destruction can hurt a human? Has his time with this party “educated” him? Or are we simply ascribing Western values onto what remains, for us, a blank canvass? All of these questions are quite powerfully summed together in an incredible shot in this sequence: the wagon has just been destroyed, and Reichardt gives us a close-up of the Native’s reaction. His face is so inscrutable! Is his smiling in mirth, or looking on with uncertainty? It is a remarkable bit of acting, and, to me, it capstones a great deal of what the film is telling us about the possibility of knowing a way of life other than your own. Obviously, this moment syncs up quite profoundly with all the religious imagery and text that Reichardt has smuggled in throughout the film.
That scene is also remarkable for the camerawork and the editing. I’m thinking in particular of the set of shots as they are letting the wagons down the ravine, where Reichardt methodically distributes her camera among the Native, who is off watching, Meek, who is commanding the party, and the rest of them, who are struggling to let the wagons down gently. There is such incredible work here as Reichardt continually captures different parts of those three elements within various shots, orchestrating them all to tell a visual story that is at times congruent with the larger narrative of the film and at times at odds to it. One might watch just this sequence and interpret it as richly and as deeply as though it were the entirety of another film.
Michael Smith: I think you’re right to say that the tense standoff between Emily and Meek in the ravine is the only prototypically Western scene in the film. It’s interesting to note that there’s no payoff in the traditional sense: no real violence erupts, and the problems the group has been facing only continue (although, Emily’s stand is a turning point; we never see Meek try again to subdue or accost the Native). Their traversal of the ravine is full of drama and uncertainty and, in terms of the film’s own thematic logic, it’s an absolutely crucial moment in that, as you note, the Native is watching them self-destruct or, in the very least, become undone by an environment they don’t understand and cannot conquer. As we’ve talked here about Reichardt’s deconstruction of Western mythology and American expansionism, this entire scene relates quite directly to that underlying idea of the failures of Manifest Destiny; while American expansion did lead to the conquest of the North American continent (so that, from one perspective, the Destiny was successful, despite the human costs), Reichardt and Raymond here are implicitly questioning the notion of Manifest Destiny in a larger sense. The reaction shots, as you’ve also noted, are pitch-perfect; the Native understands (or at least is amused by) what’s happening to these pioneers. Loss, misdirection, tragedy, failure—these are the hallmarks of Reichardt’s modern Western.
You had mentioned the composition and editing in the ravine scene; your comments therefore bring me back to one of the things I appreciate about Reichardt’s direction, here and in her other films: the patient, probatory style of her filmmaking. Cinephiles and critics often remark about and laud directors who alter form and who adopt a distinct visual grammar; without these kinds of filmmakers, the art itself would not change, develop, progress. Using the long take and composing in a careful, patient way might not seem entirely groundbreaking in this sense; Reichardt’s one among a wide variety of filmmakers who film in such a manner. But she clearly has her own compositional style—the first ten minutes or so of the film, in which we simply watch the activities of these pioneers from different visual vantage points, are evidence of this. What’s more, though, as we’ve discussed here, is that Reichardt takes on one of the most entrenched and even beloved of American genres and methodically and beautifully undermines it and challenges us to reconsider its values. (Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was one film I had admired earlier as an anti-Western, but Eastwood is in my view a classicist and in the end he travels in the same kind of dialog of violence and revenge that marked the Western). Reichardt is a different kind of filmmaker. In Wendy and Lucy she offered a unique view of economic distress and homelessness. The central character’s problems were not solely the result of impersonal, abstract economic or social forces. I’ve read that she is now making a film about environmentalism. Given her track record, I suspect that film will have her own unique signature as well. I’d classify Reichardt now as one of the America’s great contemporary filmmakers.
Scott Esposito: Very much agreed—after Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff I’d watch whatever Reichardt chose to tackle and expect it to be highly original, no matter how mainstream the subject. Just to close, I’d like to put this film into a larger cultural context: with the success of the TV series Firefly and Deadwood we seem to be seeing a resurgence of the Western to an extent. I’m not surprised, as we as a nation are at a point where we’re questioning a lot of the values that the Western helped enshrine as national myth. These values go back quite far—to the Civil War, I’d argue, essentially the cataclysm that birthed the modern American nation—and the fact that we’re seriously questioning them points to some pretty fundamental questioning about the future of our society. Is capitalism just and efficient? How do we conceive of individuality in America? What is our relationship with foreign cultures, and just what does “foreign culture” mean in a nation like America?
If we succeed in having a productive debate about the future of these values in America and the world (a big if at the moment), I think in time Meek’s Cutoff will be looked back as a significant piece of art in this conversation. I can’t recall having seen a recent film that treats these issues quite so well as Reichardt does and does so within a particularly American vernacular. For that reason alone, it is a film that should be watched and pondered, although I wonder if we’re ready for it yet. Looking up on Amazon, the 1- and 2-star reviews outpace the 4- and 5-star review by a factor of 3 to 2. The main complaint is that Meek’s Cutoff doesn’t deliver what an audience has been conditioned to want out of a Western. I fear that our culture is still trending in a direction where the clarity and the action of the “classic” Western will trump the uncertainty and meditative space of a director like Reichardt. Here’s hoping that one day soon more people are prepared to experience this incredible film.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation. Michael S. Smith is a Los Angeles-based writer and critic. He holds a Ph.D. in history and teaches at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
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