When I think of Western landscapes on film, I think first of Terrence Malick’s ravishingly beautiful Days of Heaven, the expansive prairie glowing with golden “magic hour” light. That luminous quality fits the dreamy tone of the film and its tale of an idyllic but doomed interlude in the lives of its characters. The light in Meek’s Cutoff, by contrast, could never be described as golden or magical. The sun has bleached and burned away virtually all color, leaving everything in its Western landscape a dingy yellow-brown. Parched heat practically radiates from the screen, which holds only an austere beauty, at best.
Nevertheless, Meek’s Cutoff constantly reminded me of Days of Heaven. In both, the cinematography is integral to the spirit of the film, giving texture and depth to a spare plot. The camerawork turns the wide Western plains into a fragile paradise in Heaven and a desiccated hell in Meek’s. Cinematography and storytelling are perfectly entwined.
Directed by Kelly Reichardt, with cinematography by Chris Blauvelt, Meek’s Cutoff is a moody, open-ended fable about a small party of pioneers in the 1840s, still the early days of the push westward inspired and justified by America’s so-called Manifest Destiny. Three families have hired a guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), to lead them to the Willamette Valley, but Meek’s would-be shortcut has gotten them lost in the arid, sandy wastes of eastern Oregon. Running out of water and increasingly mistrustful of their guide, the families become even more panicked when one of the women, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), spots a lone Indian (Ron Rondeaux) watching their wagon train. Meek and Emily’s husband, Solomon (Will Patton), capture the man, and though Meek urges the men to kill him outright, the party chooses instead to keep him alive in the hope he will lead them to water.
That’s about it for narrative. Reichardt is much more concerned with casting an emotional spell, taut with the tension of what isn’t being said or heard or done. Although the film isn’t overtly feminist, it quietly sticks to the perspective of the women, who, for the most part, are being excluded from any decision-making. The camera holds back when the three patriarchs hold their private conferences almost but not quite out of earshot, and we strain, along with Emily and the other women, to hear what they’re saying and learn what’s going to happen next. Later, when the group captures the native wanderer, whom Meek believes is a member of the Cayuse tribe, they are unable to communicate with him. Even their grudging attempts at pantomime are likely too stiff, too dependent on words shouted in English, to be comprehensible. As for the Cayuse’s speech, it is a mystery not only to the pioneers but also to us, the audience, for it goes untranslated. The movie keeps us as much in the dark as it does its frightened, bewildered characters, and the effect is unnerving.
Making that forced identification with the pioneers even more unnerving and uncomfortable is the dark fact that most contemporary audience members don’t want to identify with them. The zealous bigotry of our nineteenth-century avatars is wince-inducing. Even the pioneers who recoil from Meek’s vicious treatment of the Cayuse still speak of and treat their prisoner as subhuman. But when they argue among themselves about whether he’s a peaceful nomad or a warrior who was preparing to attack them and might still be leaving messages for his compatriots, we have to accept that we don’t know who he is either. We might reject their judgment that his being a warrior would make him a “savage” (indeed, trying to expel these hateful, brazen invaders from their land would be an all too human, rational act), but we know they might be right to fear him.
That ethical queasiness grows more acute over the course of the film as Reichardt pointedly refrains from clarifying the Cayuse’s intentions, which may turn out to be irrelevant anyway as the threat of dehydration and heat stroke looms ever greater. Meek’s Cutoff finds a sort of bleak poetry in that—the indifference of the universe eclipsing man’s inhumanity to man—and in the unanswerable questions it raises. Its beauty might be austere, but it’s all the more memorable and wrenching for that harshness.