04 May 2011
This is seems at first to be a movie just about being there. We've romanticized the old west, and pioneering/exploring/colonizing -- it's the core of American mythology -- and here is a film that makes us live it, in a reasonably straightforward, no-frills, struggle-and-suffer kind of way. We barely know our characters, and what we do know we learn from the outside: any clues to where they came from or where they are headed specifically, or what they hope for when they get there, or why they left behind whatever it is they left behind must be inferred through observing closely a bunch of stoic travelers. In a lot of ways it feels like the film adaptation of the old Oregon Trail game (it opens with three wagons ever so slowly fording a river, after all; though SPOILER nobody dies of dysentery, and nobody shoots more buffalo than they can carry), and that seems appropriate and maybe deliberate. In the game, there is only the bare details of the journey, the facts and figures. Apart from buying supplies and naming your wagon-mates after your classmates, there's no history or character arc to the game, or to the idea of the Oregon Trail.
But as we go, I found that the anonymity and obtuseness, the patience and meticulousness of the story, became meditative. The story's minimalist approach may be perfectly suited to the emptiness of the terrain; the paucity of passion in our bible-quoting, hard-working white european pilgrims; and even the sparseness of their belongings, but I think there's more to it than that. At first there was the opaqueness of the pioneers. Then there was the opaqueness of their hired guide Mr. Meek's motivation and expertise. And then the opaqueness of their captive The Indian. Somehow I felt led down a path without a single line of dialogue directly pointing me there, and I spent most of the movie contemplating how alien the Indian seemed to them, his ways, his beliefs, his language, his motives. Was he helping? Was he leading them in circles, or into a trap? There was a point where I honestly wondered, could be be suffering dementia? What would happen if you met a single Indian, assumed he was representative of the whole, an expert of his land, a survivor, a wise man in touch with a larger world, but everything he said and did was confounding and beyond translation to you -- how would you ever know that you weren't being led by a madman, or a senile fool?
But of course the Indian wasn't the alien here, and I think that's part of the story's point: the pioneers were the aliens, who didn't speak the language, who took for granted that their elaborately developed paradigm was the right and only one to filter the world through. They weren't bad people, not even Meek with his hardness and bluster, or Millie with her paranoid hysteria, or Millie's husband (Paul Dano; I missed his name) with his milquetoast dependence on conflict resolution and capital exchange. But they were intruders. Like the Indian who may or may not have represented his tribe, or all native peoples, the pioneers were just individual well-meaning soles that may or may not have represented America, or all European colonialists.
None of that's very deep, really -- just a list of comparisons and contrasts, I admit -- but it's what I sat and mulled over as the film moved. The ideas of the film weren't complex, but the simplicity of the story and the pace and tone and style all allowed me to relax and experience two worlds simultaneously, to pull the rose-colored glass away from our mythologized history without getting nasty or ugly or liberal-guilty about it, and to wonder what it must have felt like for both sides in such a strange and naive time.
Meek's Cutoff is in my mind kindred spirits with Dead Man and The Proposition, but after emptying out all the commonly held myths and assumptions, Jarmusch fills the void with poetry and gallows humor, and Hillcoat fills it with starkly contrasting beauty and violence. Reichardt keeps the needle steadier; she doesn't indulge in playful extremes or exaggerated experience. Instead she fills it with fly-on-the-wall "realism" and a smartly tight-lipped narrative that trusts the audience to do most of the heavy-lifting. Actually, I'd say each film's hero is a perfect illustration of that film's merit. So it's not as darkly fun as William Blake in Dead Man, or as movingly intense as Charlie Burns in The Proposition, but Meek's Cutoff goes down similar roads, with the same understated elegance and hard-edged grace as Emily Tetherow.
Seen at the Regal Fox Tower.