In Shifting Ground, Reinventing Landscape in Modern American Poetry, Bonnie Costello reminds us that “Landscape is the world under the gaze of man” (10). Meek’s Cutoff is a film preoccupied with landscape, the gaze of men, and most visibly, the gaze of women. The film caused me to return to Costello’s book not only because it is a favorite of mine, and not just because Meek’s Cutoff has been described as “a collaboration between John Ford and Wallace Stevens,” (the latter’s work is discussed at length in Shifting Ground). I admire Meek’s Cutoff for the way it lines up with the work of the poets surveyed by Costello: like the poems she describes here, the film “reveals the entanglement of nature and culture, the interplay between our desires, our concepts, and our perceptions, and possibilities for renewal and vitality within that entanglement” (14). Like the modern poems Costello favors, the film “is not designed to establish epistemological or ethical truths, but neither is it indifferent to epistemological inquiry or immune from ethical motivation or scrutiny” (14).
Ben Sachs’ comparison between Kelly Reichardt’s film and Wallace Stevens’ poetry aligns Meek’s Cutoff with work that has proven to be rewarding to some but also frustrating to others. The plot of the film is easy enough to process: while no one contracts or dies of dysentery, the characters face obstacles and challenges on the Oregon Trail that are not far removed from those encountered in the classic computer game. What will frustrate some viewers is the pace of the story, as well as its ending: in other words, Meek’s Cutoff makes Jim Jarmusch films look like rollercoaster rides. But the deliberately slow pacing and the tendency to linger on landscape succeeds in what Costello calls “keep[ing] the image supple by an active connection to flux and frame” (18). After an hour or so wandering the quiet, dry landscape with these characters, the film’s opening moments beside running water seemed loud and brief by comparison. And we are constantly presented with visions of nature mediated by human experience: the “blocking” of the party’s characters as they head further and further into unknown territory is one of many ways that the filmmakers remind us of this condition of landscape.
As many critics have noted, Meek’s Cutoff is also highly invested in gender relations and the power dynamics between men and women, and it demonstrates how wide the gap between men and women is by closely examining the details of daily life in the wilderness. While the men are shown at work, the women work just as hard if not moreso, and the hypocrisy of their powerlessness and lack of voice in this microcosm of American life is clear as day. And while Meek’s Cutoff and its filmmakers are explicit in their condemnation of this disparity, the film also does a nice job of presenting the characters in its frames with a variety of world views and shades of grey: the members of this traveling party play various roles within it, change perspectives, and have positive and negative traits. It will be tough to find another summer film where the heroine is racist and the villain is kind to children. In many ways we are reminded of the mechanisms and social interactions that render inequality more rational and palatable on a day-to-day basis.
Meek’s Cutoff also tries to complicate cinematic and other cultural depictions of American Indians. Though it may be tempting to read their reluctant guide as a variation on the image of the “noble savage,” I believe that the film succeeds in resisting complicity with this depiction by framing the character’s thoughts and motives as inaccessible. His words are not translated, his writing is not decoded, and we are ultimately uncertain about the kind of aid he is providing to his captors. And while we are presented with characters who are sympathetic to him, the motives behind these displays of sympathy are frequently contextualized in the language of survival: Michelle Williams’ character clearly dislikes the way he is treated by Meek, but she describes one act of kindness in the language of commerce.
Of course, the explanation of this kind act is also provided to a woman not entirely sympathetic to the American Indian’s condition, which further complicates things. And Meek’s Cutoff is a deceptively complex movie: “stripped down” in the sense that it presents us with a small cast and seemingly-bare “sets,” but also preoccupied with the myriad factors that motivate these travelers and dictate their interactions with one another.
Without giving much more away, I’ll end by saying that Meek’s Cutoff is the best film I’ve seen all year. Wonderfully acted, and beautifully executed by all the filmmakers involved (the editing, the soundtrack, the use of light: this thing is pretty flawless), it is a pleasant surprise this summer season and one worth tracking down amidst the usual blockbuster fare.