Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Movie review: 'Meek's Cutoff' happily wanders in the desert

Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff
By Barry Johnson

More than anything else in Meek's Cutoff, what sticks in my mind's eye is the scene that repeats itself over and over. Director Kelly Reichardt's camera captures a team of oxen pulling a wagon and a solitary figure trudging along behind it.  That figure is wearing a long dress and a bonnet, and her shoulders are a little slumped. The walk isn't efficient, exactly -- it's too weary for that -- but it stays in perfect time with the wagon, keeps the same distance behind, travels at the same rate of speed.

Those scenes establish the terrain of Meek's Cutoff.  This eastern Oregon sage desert is rough and difficult to traverse, full of "minor" features, little hills, valleys and ground both rocky and sandy.  The bonnet, its visage turned toward the ground, suggests the other terrain of the film -- the psychological. And maybe it's a flight of my own, but I imagine that it tracks that of the landscape -- dry, sparse, rocky, persistent, trance-like at times maybe, but awakening to dull throbs and gashing anxiety.
Meek's Cutoff is the new film by director Kelly Reichardt, writer Jon Raymond and actor Michelle Williams, and it's very loosely based on a real episode in the history of the early immigration to Oregon -- the attempt to pioneer an easier and safer route to the Willamette Valley than the main stem route through the Blue Mountains and along the Columbia in eastern Oregon. The movie's primary contribution to our understanding of that time, though, is its visceral sympathy for the ongoing fear, drudgery and physical challenge that those settlers endured.

We thirst, we trudge behind our wagon, we are surrounded by empty, barren land that we might consider beautiful if we knew where we were going and had ample provisions. Film can do that in ways that the literature can't. Ultimately, it becomes a movie about trust -- and blind decisions.

I was a big fan of Wendy and Lucy, the last collaboration of Reichardt, Raymond and Williams. I liked its bare narrative economy, its purposefulness, the way it avoided typical Hollywood contrivances and conventions.  And Meek's Cutoff shares those qualities. The historical Stephen Meek led a party of more than a 1,000 humans in more than 200 wagons with 4,000 livestock in tow -- a Western epic. Reichardt and Raymond have pared that to three wagons, seven settlers and Meek, plus a member of the Cayuse tribe that they capture along the way. The reduction produces an epic of a different sort, one with deep psychological interiors and wide open exteriors.

We join up with this little party as they cross a shallow river, an arduous task (though nothing like the two weeks it took the historical wagon train, hungry and disease-ravaged, to ferry everyone across the Deschutes River). And then they set off, led by Meek, here an old-fashioned macho mountain man with plenty of tall tales and an irritating swagger. The settlers know that Meek really doesn't know this territory as intimately as they've been led to believe -- one of them scratches "lost" on a log (which is  historical).

Meek knows where he's going -- in a vague way. But he doesn't know where water is along the way and that quickly becomes the central existential issue of the film, water for the people, the horses and the oxen pulling the wagons.  Early on the men start grumbling and consider hanging Meek from a wagon-tongue (this too is historical) because of his bad directions. But their fates are joined -- everyone needs water. And the mantra of Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) is "one more day." Let's see what the next day brings.

Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, Michelle Williams
Gradually, the characters start to become more distinct. A young couple (played by Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano) starts to crack up. A small family (Shirley Henderson, Neil Huff and Tommy Nelson) tries to keep itself organized and moving forward, guided by the Bible reading of the father. And the Tetherows (Patton and Michelle Williams) gradually start to lead the little band, as everyone loses faith in Meek.

The real wagon train was helped and guided by Native Americans. Reichardt and Raymond change the complexion of their band's encounter with a middle-aged Cayuse man (Rod Rondeaux) by making him a captive. The Tetherows decide their prisoner is trustworthy -- he needs water, too, though Meek is all for killing him. And this tension -- whether the captive is trustworthy, whether Meek is trustworthy -- twists tighter as the days go on and the thirst of animals and humans grows.

The ensemble is terrific as a whole, mostly because they don't overplay. Small gestures, tics and shreds of conversation become explosions of meaning in this context -- the silence of the Great Basin. How do we make decisions when we don't have good information? We fret. We pray. We try to assemble the little data we have into a convincing argument. We guess. And maybe we come to trust someone who doesn't speak our language. But we don't do it without a lot of emotion, no matter how fatalistic we start to become.

Although it's an ensemble success, Williams is particularly adept at the demands that Reichardt places on her -- the restraint and the conviction, the physical acting and its demands, the ability to play small responses to events and the other characters. And here, I'm really describing her work in Wendy and Lucy, too.

Eastern Oregon is a perfect place to play out the dramas of the West, most of which have been filmed in the Southwest. It's not Monument Valley with those dramatic land forms. It's more prosaic than that. I liked Williams' description of it in Movieline:
I think it was something about the landscape where everything looks the same — one patch of desert is completely unrecognizable next to another patch of desert. It’s just not my natural environment. So from the moment I got there, it unsettled me. But I’ve come to love it. If you look hard enough, you can see variation in the landscape where you think it’s actually completely barren and nothing lives out there. You spend a little time, you look a little closer, and you see what’s actually inherent to the land. But at first it felt like we’d been sent to Mars.
We know what happened to the real Meek wagon train. We don't know how this one ends -- Reichardt leaves us in the desert, following the Cayuse captive into the wilderness. Toward water maybe. The company has chosen a path, made a decision, bet everything on it, taken a leap of faith. The lights go up suddenly, in the middle. Which is where we in the audience also find ourselves in our own stories.


Here's another interview with Williams, a partial one in Interview magazine with an interesting take on the bonnets and the dresses.


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