Soon after we started watching it, the first debate arose: is this a Western? On one level, of course it is: it’s set in the West; it depicts three couples who have left a wagon train to follow a shortcut to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, led by a tracker called Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood); and both the settlers journeying in their wagons and the seasoned tracker are common conventions of the classical Western. Via this narrative, it depicts the settlers coming into contact with the wilderness, both the land and its inhabitants. In the first instance, this contact is mediated by Meek; later, it is more direct, through their interaction with the Cayuse Indian (Ron Rondeaux) whom they stumble across and capture, and who becomes their new guide. In this shift in roles, we see departures from convention arising: Meek’s abilities to lead them to the Valley are questionable, and called as such from the very beginning, as one settler carves the word “Lost” into a fallen tree. In this way, the film dispenses with the effortless mastery of the wilderness that the classical Westerner puts into the service of civilizing forces. As it proceeds, Meek’s revisions continue: these settlers are a particularly disunified bunch, their responses to being, or seeming to be, lost ranging from the more familiar grim determination all the way to uncontrollable hysteria. Initially, the men make all the decisions, and the women are kept out of it. This is typical, of course, but highlighted by how partial our access to information is, filtered as it is through the visual and aural perspectives of the women overhearing from a distance. Gradually, one of the women, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), becomes the group’s presiding force (alongside but in some respects even more than her husband, Soloman, played by Will Patton) through her defense of the lone Native American who is leading them… somewhere. The characters don’t just navigate the obstacles presented by the landscape; the landscape ravages them, and they get filthier as the film goes on (when a character gets dirty in a classical Western, they never stay that way for long). The dirt, the uncertain relationship with the land, the character reversals (the Westerner called into question, a woman taking on an increasingly pivotal role), and some of Kelly Reichardt’s key stylistic choices mark it as a revisionist Western of the type that has dominated since the early 1970s.
As in many such films, Reichardt has opted for a slow, deliberate pacing (apparently characteristic of her recent work, but I haven’t seen Old Joy or Wendy and Lucy yet), but she’s pushed it much further than most: the long shots emphasizing the barren landscape, occasionally punctuated by moments of lyrical beauty (sunsets, for example), and highly restricted vantages on the action (dorsal shots, especially of characters like Meek and the Cayuse whose knowledge and aims are in question; shots where the landscape is only visible through the rear-end of the wagons) leads one to think of the film as a Western-genre version of the cinema of contemplation that has been a dominant trend in art cinema for the last few decades.
The cinema of contemplation takes cues from Antonioni, was developed further in Herzog, Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos, and Malick, and is exemplified as well by people ranging from Kiarostami to Wong Kar-Wai and Apichatpong Weerasethakul to Reichardt (I am drawing the term of Thompson and Bordwell’s Film History, but here’s a blog devoted to it; and a nice capsule discussion). Of the recent debates around “slow cinema,” all over the web and in film magazines lately, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott in the New York Times fired two of the best shots, and Meek’s Cutoff was a prime example for them.
The second debate that arose is related, in a sense: how were we going to watch the film? Like many home viewers, and probably most home viewers likely to watch a contemporary art film (that is, those in a certain income bracket, or those film-fanatical enough to be committed to optimal home-viewing conditions), we have an HD-TV. But in an era where most viewers of an arthouse film are going to be seeing it on a 16×9 screen, it’s downright perverse of Reichardt to insist on a 1.33:1 aspect ratio for the DVD. Leaving aside those who hate to see any part of their screen blank because, dammit, they paid for a widescreen TV, Academy aspect ratio films are a little challenging in my parent’s house because our Samsung has annoying pillars that are white or gray, but can’t be made black. The thing is, though, that Reichardt’s shots are rigorously composed for that format: this is the most vertical Western in decades. She draws on framing strategies of 1930s and ‘40s Westerns for shots of the wagons, for instance, in most cases framing them diagonally to emphasize their verticality, rather than more typical planar, or planimetric, compositions that would have highlighted the wagons’ horizontal procession across the landscape (the term ‘planimetric’ is drawn from Heinrich Wofflin by David Bordwell; http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2007/01/16/shot-consciousness/). So Reichardt is drawing on elements of classical-era genre style as part of her contemplative approach to it, which seems to me a novel twist on the art-genre synthesis in contemporary American film that I write about elsewhere. Prop and costume design are notable here, too. My parents were quick to point out that they are period appropriate in their design (they care about that sort of thing a lot more than I do), featuring covers more starkly vertical than the comparatively bulbous covers of the Conestoga wagons more familiar from the genre (Meek’s is set in 1845, where most Westerns are set in the post-Civil War period). Their design also plays into Reichardt’s vertical visuals at that same time as shots from the wagons’ interiors allows for a restricted visual field. As critics elsewhere have pointed out, the bonnets the women wear (also period accurate) restrict their views on the action just as Reichardt restricts ours, not only in her compositions, but in her choice of aspect ratio. If the pillars you see on the side of your widescreen TV when watching Meek’s Cutoff emphasize the verticality of her compositions, they also can make you feel like you are looking at the world with a bonnet on your head.
In the end, though, we were left with one last debate: What happens in the end of the film? Here we are on classic art-film terrain: intentional ambiguity. (SPOILERS A’COMIN’!) My dad argues that the tree and the grass the settlers find indicate that the Cayuse has been leading them to water, and they are almost there; my mom maintains that there is no such definitive conclusion to be drawn. Just as the restricted views from the wagons reminded me of Kiarostami, here I recall Bordwell and Thompson’s long-running argument over whether or not the boy gets the girl at the end of Through the Olive Trees. I see where the trees and the grass at least mean they’ve left the desert behind; but that the tree is half-dead seems purposeful, too. Of course, we can’t know with any certainty what the settlers will find next. But for me, the thing that mitigates any sense of a positive outcome here is the tone of the film, and it’s in the tone that Meek’s Cutoff departs most decisively from the Western as a genre.
Those revisionist Westerns that Reichardt seems influenced by are marked by a pervasive sadness: for the coming of a civilization that is viewed ambivalently at best; in the end, for the passing of the West and, most often, the passing of the Westerner, more often than not viewed as a character following a code of honor that civilization (be it embodied by power-mad ranchers, or venal bankers and railroad executives) rarely respects. Certainly, the narrative of Meek’s Cutoff is driven by the civilization/wilderness conflict, but on a conceptual level, it seems to be little more than a backdrop for the film’s principal concern: studying group dynamics in the midst of a crisis, and the transition among them from indecision (do we trust Meek? should we still follow him?) to uncertainty (this course of action is the only one we have, whatever comes of it; all we can do is face the unknown head-on).
We can debate how much classical Westerns ever really were about civilization vs. wilderness, but revisionist Westerns have been dominated by that dialectic, so many of them having been made after academics popularized the idea that that’s what Westerns had always been about. To the extent that the film eschews those thematics, it’s less a revisionist Western than a post-Western.
And this is where another genre might prove illuminating. In the last 20 minutes of the film, I began to lose the sense that Emily Tetherow was the heroine of the film in an uncomplicated sense. Long before the tree, I lost hope that there would be water at the end of this, let alone a valley. That’s where, for me, the suspense of the film turned into a sense of dread. I began to think more and more about Night of the Living Dead, where the hero faces down bigotry and panic among his fellow survivors, earning our trust, only to have turned out to have led everyone to their deaths. Though the ending of Meek’s Cutoff allows one to hold out hope, the film has started to feel like a post-apocalyptic horror film. The end leaves the settlers determined to follow their path- in Meek’s words, to play out the roles Fate has assigned them- but that sense of dread has become pervasive. Its narrative dynamics, its concentration on a small group facing doom, its refusal of comfortable closure, are as much horror film as art film, and more that than Western. (In a genre theory sense, it’s a kind of split-personality case, semantically Western and syntagmatically horror.) Now that pop culture is obsessed with zombies, I wonder what Reichardt could do with a zombie film- or if it would be a case of been-there-done-that.
[I said I was going to post about Drive, and I will after I’ve done some actual research, but I thought I might also do some smaller-scale “journal” entries once in a while on things I happen to watch/hear/read. This is one. It’s about a film that’s been pretty heavily written about, so I’ve tried to avoid a few points made elsewhere, in places like Film Comment.]