Notable Festivals: Venice
The Oregon Trail holds a venerated place in the annals of American myth, buoyed by a pioneering spirit as well as its status as a cultural touchstone for every Millennial who played the iconic computer game. The actual journey, however, was far from some game or romantic adventure— it was a grueling, sluggish trek across an endless expanse of desert prairie broken up only by a treacherous mountain pass. The hostility of the terrain was matched by the conflict they encountered with the various native populations that inhabited it— a conflagration fueled by the settlers’ deep mistrust and contempt for an alien culture they did not understand. The voyage was one filled with hard choices, where the moral standards of civilization could easily be sacrificed to the needs of survival.
Despite its relatively high historical profile, there are surprisingly few films about the Oregon Trail, and even fewer that capture the gritty uncertainty of the pioneers who made the trek. Director Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010) asserts itself, then, as the definitive film chronicling this fascinating chapter of American history. The piece is at once a return as well as a departure for Reichardt: a return to Oregon, to the subversion of genre that informed RIVER OF GRASS (1994), and to the fruitful collaborations with executive producer Todd Haynes, writer Jon Raymond and producers Neil Kopp & Anish Savjani that resulted in both OLD JOY (2006) and WENDY AND LUCY (2008). Beyond just the change in scenery, its departures take the form of additional producers Elizabeth Cuthrell & David Urrutia and its central conceit as a period piece— Reichardt’s first.
As a story set during the last, harrowing leg of the Oregon Trail in 1845, MEEK’S CUTOFF was always going to deal in the visual and narrative grammar of the Western, but Raymond’s script muddies the black-and-white clarity of the genre’s entrenched moral code with the grey shades of a simmering thriller. A caravan of covered wagons faithfully follows their feral guide, Stephen Meek, across the arid eastern Oregon desert. Played by a nearly-unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood, Meek’s wild mountain man appearance and raconteur affectations inspire a wary confidence that he is the right man to lead these homesteaders into the promised land of the fertile Willamette Valley. The journey goes roughly as well as could be expected, until they capture a lone native who’s been silently tracking them. Played by Rod Rondeaux as a stoic prisoner who betrays no emotion about his sudden captivity, The Indian (as he’s called in the credits) splits the fragile unity of the wagon party right down the middle; some believe he’s secretly communicating with his tribe and inviting an ambush, while others find themselves growing distrustful of Meek’s increasingly-prejudiced judgment. Michelle Williams, in her second consecutive performance under Reichardt, leads this insurgent faction as the pragmatic, observant Emily Tetherow. As the group’s paranoia escalates, Emily asserts herself as the cooler head that must prevail, lest the bickering and infighting between the men cloud their sense of reason (a standout moment finds Emily stitching The Indian’s moccasin back together for him— but not out of the goodness of her heart, but because she wants him “to owe her something” should he unexpectedly gain the upper hand). This central conflict allows an opportunity for nuanced performances from other members of the wagon party; most notably from Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan as a younger pioneer couple prone to anxiety, and WENDY AND LUCY’s Will Patton as Emily’s husband. Typical of Reichardt’s narrative inclinations, MEEK’S CUTOFF eschews the grand theatrics of physical conflict in favor of the compelling subtleties of characterization; the simmering tensions don’t build to a resolution in the conventional sense, but rather serve as an avenue for Reichardt and company to explore the psychological wear and tear that can result from the friction between an extreme scenario and our most basic human impulses.
MEEK’S CUTOFF’s “anti-western” approach extends beyond its narrative framework, encapsulating the whole of its aesthetic design and execution. Reichardt’s starting point is the aspect ratio, which eschews the widescreen vistas typical of the genre for a confining 1.33:1 Academy frame. When asked about this decision in press interviews, she has stated she chose this narrower aspect ratio to evoke “the view from inside a bonnet”, eliminating our peripheral vision while dropping us directly into the story’s feminine perspective. The effect is an appropriately claustrophobic one, made all the more remarkable by virtue of the story taking place entirely outdoors. MEEK’S CUTOFF also finds Reichard upgrading from 16mm to 35mm film, with the higher gauge giving eastern Oregon’s dry desert scrub and gentle slopes a striking clarity. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt proves instrumental in the evolution of Reichardt’s aesthetic, retaining her preference for natural light and minimalistic camerawork while boosting contrast levels for a moodier look. Their use of available light — the unrelenting blast of high-noon sun, or the dim glow of magic hour — takes on a kind of hostile beauty, as if the wagon train has ventured into a forbidden realm. Reichardt and Blauvelt take an even-bolder approach come nightfall, choosing to render said sequences almost entirely in blackness save for the practical light of a campfire or the use of a single china ball lantern to simulate the wan glow of the moon. It’s a very tricky prospect to deprive the audience of a picture — the fundamental building block of the medium — for an extended period of time, but the effect as executed here ably communicates the suffocating blackness of night in the desert. It also forces us as the audience to lean in close to listen to the fervent whispering between these would-be pioneers as they try to make sense of a shaky situation.
MEEK’S CUTOFF anchors its recreation of the Oregon Trail outside of Burns— a small town of just under 3,000 people that butts up against the Burns Paiute Indian Reservation. Gone are the lush forests of the Willamette Valley to the west; this is a very different rendition of Oregon, albeit one more in line with the state’s geographical majority. The sparsely-populated setting provides a somewhat-colorless backdrop — various shades of brown against gradient skies — but production designer David Doernberg leans into the challenge with an authentic historical recreation that’s as imaginative as it is realistic. The caravan of covered wagons reads true to the mythos of the period, if only slightly smaller than what we tend to imagine. The monochromatic backdrop affords Doernberg and costume designer Vicki Farrell to use color to striking effect, most notably in the dresses worn by the pioneer women. The boldly-colored garments feel almost obscene; a needlessly-extravagant luxury in the face of such a hostile and barren environment. In the wide, they almost resemble exotic birds who have inadvertently flown too far away from another world. This refusal to yield their femininity in the face of the elements speaks to Reichardt’s artistic embrace of grit and stoicism as character traits not exclusive to men— a conceit that also manifests via the director’s longtime practice of performing editing duties herself. One could argue that she gets away with her minimalistic approach to coverage because she has direct foreknowledge of how it will be assembled in the edit. As such, Reichardt’s editing sensibilities often echo the observational, patient nature of her characters and camerawork. Considering MEEK’S CUTOFF’s spare deployment of dolly or handheld setups in favor of locked-off compositions, the edit naturally takes on a plodding, yet determined, pace that reinforces the long, grueling journey onscreen. A mysterious, ambient score by composer Jeff Grace turns the desert into an experiential abstraction; the settlers might as well be traversing the surface of Mars. With his work on MEEK’s CUTOFF, Grace joins Reichardt’s roster of close collaborators, his having come to her attention likely due to his work for the films of fellow Larry Fessenden / Glass Eye Pix acolyte, Ti West.
If OLD JOY and WENDY AND LUCY established the core conceits of Reichardt’s thematic agenda, then MEEK’S CUTOFF reinforces them with a narrative that touches on those key tenets. Reichardt’s films are inextricably tied to her feminine, left-of-center perspective— even in OLD JOY, where the two male leads subvert the masculine trope of “venturing into the wilderness” in favor of a soulful and sensitive reconnection. In this regard, Williams’ character of Emily Tetherow provides a compelling window through which to observe the story as MEEK’S CUTOFF unfolds. Already marginalized by dint of her womanhood in a time where women had no place in seats of power, Emily is forced to stand on the sidelines and watch as the caravan’s menfolk let their vanity and ego overpower their grip on an increasingly-tense situation. She possesses the fortitude and grit required of a pioneer— much more so than Meek, even — but yet she can’t rise above the restrictions of her gender until the social compact breaks down entirely. While she’s ultimately victorious in asserting herself and bringing the conflict back from the brink of chaos, her win is a small one: she simply replaces her husband’s vote when he’s incapacitated.
The production of MEEK’S CUTOFF also affords Reichardt the opportunity to deconstruct the romantic myth of The Oregon Trail in a fashion similar to her sobering depictions of America’s working class in previous work. The “frontier myth” is a potent narrative that drives our cultural character, especially in the West; after all, what could be more American than the idea of pulling up your bootstraps and forging the life you want for yourself in a plentiful landscape? It’s easy, then, to forget what had to happen in order to make such a dream possible in the first place— the uprooting and decimation of an entire civilization that had already called that land “home” for centuries. Beyond simply reminding us that the journey westward was far from the glamorous or romantic adventure that the Anglo-Saxon view of history makes it out to be, MEEK’S CUTOFF uses its spare narrative to challenge the supposed “righteousness” of Manifest Destiny. The pioneers were told that it was their moral duty to expand the American experiment across the continent, giving them a deluded justification to invade foreign lands with total disregard for the locals. In this context, MEEK’S CUTOFF gains a timely resonance despite its period trappings, drawing a firm line from the philosophies behind Manifest Destiny and the uniquely American brand of imperialism that drew us into a “pre-emptive” war with Iraq. Reichardt makes this connection very subtly, refusing concrete allusions in favor of allowing the audience to organically infer and absorb MEEK’S CUTOFF’s political sentiments. By stripping the romantic glow of myth from her narrative, Reichardt reveals how small these figures actually are— dwarfed by a landscape that never needed them to begin with. That Reichardt made MEEK’S CUTOFF in 2010 when the Obama Administration was laboring to roll back the damage of the Bush Doctrine only reinforces her message; much like how the pioneers had ventured too far to turn back and go home, our haste to bring “democracy” to a distant, oil-rich land had entrapped us in an inextricable quagmire.
MEEK’S CUTOFF premiered at the 67th Venice Film Festival before going on to a limited theatrical engagement typical of its indie status. While the film’s slow, deliberate pace may have turned off those looking for more of a rousing experience typical of the western genre, many critics responded to it with appreciation and admiration. Beyond her artistic expansion into a historical period outside of the present, Reichardt has also diversified her cinematic portrait of Oregon from the Willamette Valley to include its vast eastern deserts, adding another entry into what has become a comprehensive chronicle of the Beaver State’s varied cultural geography and complicated history. With her three Oregon-set films, Reichardt had done the heavy lifting necessary to restore her creative momentum after a long period of stagnation– and with their success on the international stage, she had empowered herself with the freedom to manifest her own destiny as a trail-blazing pioneer of rugged, soulful filmmaking.
MEEK’S CUTOFF is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Oscilloscope.
Written by: Jonathan Raymond
Produced by: Neil Kopp, Anish Savhani, David Urrutia, Elizabeth Cuthrell
Director of Photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Production Design by: David Doernberg
Edited by: Kelly Reichardt
Music by: Jeff Grace