This Land Is Your Land
By Matt Connolly

Meek’s Cutoff
Dir. Kelly Reichardt, U.S., Oscilloscope Laboratories

Throughout the past century of cinema we’ve seen parched earth, looming hills, and endless skies in everything from John Ford’s magisterial Monument Valley to Terrence Malick’s Seventies-era Dust Bowl cine-poems to Paul Thomas Anderson’s desert-as-desiccated-soul in There Will Be Blood. But the expanses of the southwest have never felt quite the way they do in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, at once a summation of and an evolution in the director’s depictions of the American landscape—indeed, in her filmmaking overall.

She set her last two features in and around the verdant forests of greater Portland, employing the land to different if overlapping purposes. In Old Joy, the peacefulness of the winding woodland paths and picturesque vistas stands in contrast to the unspoken tensions that simmering beneath a boys’-weekend camping trip embarked upon by father-to-be Mark (Daniel London) and longtime friend and lost soul Kurt (Will Oldham). Reichardt ultimately transforms the woods into an emotional space, a would-be Eden where fraying relationships and burnt-out hopes can find flickering, momentary renewal. The protagonist of Wendy and Lucy, in contrast, has little time for nature as balm for the wounded liberal’s soul. A homeless drifter quickly running out of money, Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her faithful canine companion Lucy spend a good deal of time wandering about the strip-mall parking lots and nondescript streets of an unnamed Oregon town. Still, the wilderness remains a constant presence, whether in the sustained opening track of Wendy and Lucy playing fetch in a clearing, or, later, when the woods prove the only resting place free of monetary cost and the eyes of law enforcement. But there’s no Emersonian escape awaiting Wendy. Nature may act as a refuge of sorts, but it’s also situated beyond the borders of societal protection—the very society that slammed the door on Wendy to begin with. To stay there is to inhabit an unpredictable and dangerous space, as seen in Wendy’s throat-tightening nighttime encounter with a mysterious, silent figure who, in a stinging irony, most likely occupies a similar economic position as herself.

Porous to begin with, these dichotomous views of nature flow into one another throughout Meek’s Cutoff. The landscape is desperate emotion, and it is brutal fact. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the film “dreamlike,” there are moments of such disquieting wonder and mystery that they approach the uncanny. We return to the Oregon wilderness, though swaying trees and thick underbrush have been replaced by scorched desert. The year is 1845, and three couples travel across this unforgiving terrain towards a nonspecific destination that promises gold, prosperity, and the start of something new. Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) and his younger wife, Emily (Michelle Williams), unofficially lead the group, which includes middle-aged parents William and Glory White (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson), their son, Jimmy (Tommy Nelson), and recently married Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan).

Questions like how these familial units know one another and where each comes from remain largely unanswered throughout Meek’s Cutoff. We know them as transients, disconnected from the past and navigating a treacherous present. While the film seems hesitant about loading too much allegorical baggage upon their shoulders, the settlers nevertheless take on a slightly abstract quality, their journey becoming less the pursuit of individuated goals than a collective sojourn toward a vaguely defined holy grail. And like the faithful nomads of biblical history—evoked throughout by various characters—the assembly finds its prophet-guide in one Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a self-fashioned western adventurer with wild graying locks and a prolific beard. Meek has already joined them on the wagon trail when the film begins, and the watchful, outspoken Emily begins to question the navigational competence behind Meek’s blustery tales of bear wrestling and run-ins with the much-discussed western “heathens.”

Emily’s suspicions of Meek are neither confirmed nor denied within Meek’s Cutoff: an oblique approach to character essential to the film’s growing sense of uncertainty. Yet we understand her doubts intuitively, as Meek’s loquacious growl stands in sharp contrast to the largely silent physical labor that defines the other settlers and accounts for much of the running time. One barely hears a word uttered throughout the film’s opening scenes, with Emily and others going about the daily tasks of survival: gathering water, building fires, etc. As the settlers soldier on under Meek’s questionable guidance, this repetition of collecting, making, and walking—always walking—attunes us to the tangible realities of frontier life. (It also provides a sharp delineation of gender politics within the assembly, the women often grouped together on one side of the campground, going about their chores and wondering what the men are discussing across the way.) Bodily necessities take on an unusual vividness in Reichardt’s work, perhaps because she makes us acutely aware of how tenuously her characters can access them—think of Wendy obsessively counting her shrinking wad of cash. This knowledge—the strain of constant movement, the harrowing yet dispassionate severity of the surroundings, and the ever-dwindling supplies—weighs upon every moment of Meek’s Cutoff, silent but ready to assert itself when least expected.

Yet the dangers posed by this Oregon Trail are much more than physical. A sense of free-floating dread slowly leaks into the film, thanks to Reichardt’s subtle plays with time and space. Days and nights are clearly demarcated throughout Meek’s Cutoff (prepare yourself for some retina-searing cuts from pitch-black tents to blinding white desert mornings), but how much time really passes over the course of the film remains uncertain. Location takes on even greater importance—and ambiguity. The issue of where exactly they are fuels much of the tension between Meek and Emily, and prompts the group to spare a Cayuse Native American (Rod Rondeaux) whom they find and accuse of spying, in the hopes that he will guide them to a nearby lake or stream.

As the arid plains blur together, though, the settlers’ journey becomes a sojourn through a magnificent void. Reichardt and DP Chris Blauvelt achieve hypnotic power with a minimum of fuss and an emphasis on the landscape’s crystalline shocks of sky blues, rusty reds, sandy browns, and sun-soaked whites (aurally aided by the uneasy ambience of Jeff Grace’s score). A stationary shot early on appears to find the group’s covered wagons exiting the bottom of the frame as another set of vehicles looms in the distance. It takes a moment to realize that Reichardt—also the film’s editor—is using an extremely slow dissolve, and that the top of the frame displays the same wagons approaching in a new location. An entrancing moment of cinematography and editing, it quietly dislocates us, painting the landscape as a site of shifting borders and uncertain perspectives. The distanced and patiently tracking camera, meanwhile, knows just when to close in on the settler’s weathered, frightened faces and when to strand them in a vast and alarmingly beautiful desert expanse, standing apart even as we begin to feel as engulfed as the characters do.

Envisioning this purported Promised Land as a desolate moonscape inevitably places Meek’s Cutoff within the auspices of the “revisionist Western.” Never mind that the genre has been revising itself for well over 60 years, for this has done little to diminish the ideological charge implicit in returning to the era of manifest destiny and its casualties: namely, the Native American population. Reichardt skillfully teases out from Jonathan Raymond’s screenplay (based on a true story) the echoes of western-set xenophobia and unthinking white privilege that linger on in today’s political and cultural discourse. But Reichardt and Raymond are clearly aware that so mesmeric a journey cannot simply conclude with a bit of look-how-little-has-changed finger wagging. The vibrant and unstable milieu crafted here extends to the film’s political positioning, which underlines the implicit arrogance of the settlers’ actions while connecting their specific anxieties to a larger sense of existential terror.

This fear finds its roots in a fundamental incomprehension of the country they assumed they knew, embodied in the linguistic, cultural, and racial barriers that lie between themselves and the unnamed Native American they at once hold hostage and give their fates to. Raymond’s script doesn’t paint the settlers’ discomfort with broad strokes, with Emily offering him tentative assistance, at one point brusquely sewing up his battered shoes over the protests of the other women. (In a telling move, Raymond places the most virulent hatred in the mouth of Meek, whose own outsider social position and ties to the western landscape align him closer to the Native Americans than anyone else.) But no neo-noble savage tropes find their way into Meek’s Cutoff either. The Cayuse man remains an enigma, with the film’s lack of subtitles rendering his language as mysterious to us as it is to Emily and company. A suspicion that he’s ultimately leading the group in the wrong direction hangs ominously over the film, the potential for betrayal acting not as a reactionary throwback to “Indian attack” cliché but springing from the unknowable character of the land and its inhabitants. Their privation and helplessness in the face of nature places the settlers in a somewhat analogous position to that of Reichardt’s 21st-century western sojourner Wendy. The difference—unspoken within the film but visible just off-screen—lies in our knowledge of what the future holds: a rejection of nature’s inscrutability and the peoples associated with it. (The casting of Wendy and Lucy’s Williams, then, holds a bit of extradiagetic poignancy; her trajectory from empathetic pioneer leader to rejected modern-day have-not carries with it an entire story of what incipient societies can foster, and how marginalizing social barriers calcify over time.) Yet the film’s richly evocative concluding moments suggest a more ambiguous vision, alive to the dangers and possibilities of trusting the unknown.

Like all of Reichardt’s work, Meek’s Cutoff leaves viewers in a state of charged indeterminacy. Her films—minimalist, elusive, cool to the touch, yet stirring—beg multiple viewings. Surely a second (and third) look at Meek’s Cutoff will not provide “the answers,” and may put into sharper relief its minor but present flaws: the slightly uneven cast (Williams, Greenwood, and Patton consistently wow; the others less so), the moments when Reichardt’s distanced approach tilts a bit toward the studied. So be it. It’s perhaps not an accident that the only other film from this year’s New York Film Festival I so fervently wish to revisit is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Different in so many ways, both movies open up a specific space—the deserts of Oregon; the jungles of Thailand—until it practically vibrates with excitingly mysterious cinematic energy, leaving enough room for audiences to come in and explore. This entrancing, unsettling vision of the American landscape—with all the connotations that word implies—lingers in the mind as its haunting final image fades into the darkness of the screen and the vast expanse of history.