"Everything arises in this way, opposites from their opposites." - Plato
"Meek's Cutoff" stars Michelle Williams and Will Patton as a husband and wife who travel from Missouri to Oregon during the 1840s. Leading them, and several other families, is Stephen Meek, a frontier guide who may or may not be completely lost.
"Cutoff" was directed by Kelly Reichardt, whose previous films ("Wendy and Lucy", "Old Joy") might best be described as "offbeat" or "failed" road-movies. Whilst the road-movie typically charts a character's growth, progress or a slow rites of passage, Reichardt's journeys subvert the genre. Her characters reach stagnation, impasses, and often find themselves lost, trapped in hopeless situations or becoming allegories for a certain political impotency. At best, the trails Reichardt's characters find themselves on lead nowhere useful in particular. At worst, they dangerously double back on themselves, advancement impossible.
"Cutoff's" opening scene condenses Reichardt's themes. We see a waggon convoy, led by men, crossing a river. Women carrying birdcages above their heads soon follow. These motifs permeate the entire film: men lead whilst women and animals dutifully follow, burdens in tow. Mirroring the caged bids are the women's large bonnets, which reduce or "cage" peripheral vision and which bleed into the film's 4:3 aspect ratio, which cuts off one's "view" to the left and the right and so telescopes vision, not dissimilar to animal-blinders. Reichardt's point is clear. These women, like beasts of burden, trudge ahead, conditioned to follow singular path's blazed by men. "The square aspect ratio gives you an idea of the women's closed view; the loneliness of their journeys," Reichardt herself says interviews. But the 4:3 aspect ratio also subverts the western genre itself, which is oft associated with widescreen landscapes and vast frontiers, all presented as gladiatorial spaces to be mastered and/or tamed. For Reichardt, though, the genre's rugged individualism and promises of freedom are reversed; her vistas become nooses which tighten.
Some have labelled "Meek's Cutoff" "feminist", but it's also simply a correct representation of the mid 1800s. Reichardt's female characters aren't privy to the hushed conversations of the film's men. They're separated from the men, have no say in debates and are shown to tend to traditionally masculine jobs as well as traditionally feminine, domestic duties. Men walk and toil, women walk and toil with pregnant stomachs.
Unsurprisingly, "Cutoff's" character names are mostly symbolic. One family is literally called "the Whites", whilst one man, Soloman, literally becomes the only worthwhile man of the film, his wife headstrong and made privy, by him, to the group's debates and manoeuvrings. Then there's Stephen Meek, presented as an iconic trapper and potent male leader (he talks of glorious conquests, achievements, his killing of Indians and female bears etc) and who literally tethers the film's families (one of whom is called the Tetherows) to his own narrow vision. Much of the film watches as Reichardt's characters blindly follow Meek, but gradually they begin to grow disillusioned. The guy doesn't know what he's doing.
Reichardt, in interviews, likened her film to George Bush Junior's excursions in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. But to say Bush got a nation lost in a meandering, directionless desert journey is – whilst not necessary untrue - to reduce what are far more complex issues. "Meek's Cutoff" is thus better viewed as being representative of something far broader. It's a more generalised tale of idolatry, misplaced trust and of incompetent leaders who are empowered solely because we are meek and so engender their own (abuse of) authority.
Late in the film, our travellers encounter a Cayuse Indian. Meek wants to kill the Indian and so begins to sow seeds of paranoia. It is at this moment when Michelle William's character, Emiley, steps out of her shell and stands up to him. She essentially stops being meek (the cutoff point of the film's title), demands that the Indian not be harmed, usurps Meek and then turns Meek's job over to the Cayuse. Reichardt's message is clear, if overly heavy-handed: a deeply patriarchal culture is shown to violently distrust the Other, a self-destructive stance which is reversed with the introduction of traditionally feminine values. The Whites and the Other then journey ahead together whilst Meek, a very violent Western archetype, is revealed to be a simple fool. He's literally cut-off and overthrown, leading to the film title's triple meaning. But Reichardt's too smart to end with closure. Maybe our travellers starve, get lost and maybe their faith in the Other is completely misplaced. We don't know.
Westerns with female leads ("The Quick and the Dead", "Bad Girls" etc) often perpetuate the idea of the phallic female gunfighter. Westerns with male leads, meanwhile, conventionally feature women who abhor, are ignorant of, or are afraid of guns. Unusual for the genre, "Cutoff" gives its one moment of gun-play to Emiley. It's at this moment in which she moves from passive spectator to active protagonist and so takes on the role of heroic westerner. Given her relationship with the Indian, though, Emiley finds herself representative of a new kind of western hero. In Emiley's hands, the gun isn't a tool for conquest and her relationship with the Other is presented as the alternative to the law/lawless, civilisation/savage dichotomy of traditional westerns. She suggests coexistence and integration, symbolised by a last act shot of a tree (hope blooms?) and a POV shot in which our/her gaze is literally encircled by leaves. Reichardt create's a new, potentially mythic western hero, though the film's tone remains fearful and uncertain.
8/10 - Like Reichardt's previous films, "Cutoff" is minimalist, heavily symbolic and visually spare. It's very poorly paced in parts, but a strong performance by Bruce Greenwood elevates things. Requires multiple viewings.
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