Kelly Reichardt’s films Old Joy (2006), which I did not like, and Wendy and Lucy (2008), which I did like, both adapted stories by co-scenarist Jonathan Raymond, who is given the sole writing credit for Reichardt’s gripping, stunning Meek’s Cutoff. (Raymond also co-wrote Todd Haynes’s 2011 television mini-series Mildred Pierce.) The existential western follows the wagon-trek of three families, who have splintered off from a large group of pioneers (shades of Werner Herzog’s 1972 Aguirre, the Wrath of God), heading to Oregon in 1845; promised a short cut through the Cascade Mountains by their guide, Stephen Meek, the lot of them are lost in the desert. (The action is based on an actual incident.) Meek, unbalanced by his hatred and fear of Native Americans (a gloss on our anti-terrorism hysteria post-9/11), pollutes with his madness the austere, pristine although eerily vacant landscape—a realm inviting paranoia. A captured Cayuse brave also offers guidance as to how to proceed. Can he be trusted? Is it worth the risk that he might be leading the families into ambush and death?
Appropriately, the film refrains from resolving these questions at the level of plot in order to convert its terrific suspense into a thematic rather than a narrative consideration. The white emigrants, rather, remain locked in their shared mental state, uncertain of their future both short-term and long-term. They are consumed by the moment they are in, which is fraught with fear—and, beyond that, with Kierkegaardian dread, because they are driven to make such choices as will deliver them to their fate, whatever that may be. Embodiments of manifest destiny at, ironically, the humblest level, they are endless wanderers in the America of their own presumptuous making.
There is one partial exception. This is Emily Tetherow, who for initially opportunistic motive develops something of a something of a relationship with the group’s native prisoner, and whose spirit subtly expands as a consequence of this and, perhaps as well, a greater receptivity to the beauty of the desolate landscape surrounding her. Withdrawn into the shadow with which her severe bonnet blankets her identity, the visual and social fate she shares with the other women on the journey, she alone, initially invisibly, “comes out” into the fierce sunlight by the expansion of her grit and personality and, most of all, by her expansion of spirit. As a result, she comes to occupy the more or less acknowledged role of the group’s leader—as a moronic recent U.S. president would have it, “the decider.” The woman who has made this film has made a woman character, then, the “rugged individualist” of the group, one whose clarity and authority stands in contradistinction to the bombastic chauvinism of the ironically named Meek, the ostensible male guide. Whatever one thinks of her personally, Michelle Williams, so wonderful in Wendy and Lucy, gives a titanic performance as Emily.
There are no preachy, declamatory feminist gestures in this film, but the conviction arises that the successful navigation of America’s moral and psychological terrain will be, largely, “woman’s work.”
Reichardt (SIGNIS Award, Venice; best director, Gijón) and her color cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, collaborate on brilliant images, achieving a supernal clarity of vision that becomes hallucinatory and surreal. (Using night for night, though, the nighttime scenes are illimitably, mysteriously dark.) Bursting through the predominant silence, the rolling away and emptying of the one barrel of water encapsulates the real, immediate danger and hardship that the westward emigrants face, regardless of whether the “savages” and “heathens” wait up ahead to execute their fate. For their survival, they must push on in search of water. There is no “bounty” in this parched, otherworldly landscape. There is no rest along the Oregon Trail.
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