"Trudging to the End of Knowledge"
"This Was All Written Long Ago"
One must now ask the chicken-or-the-egg question: where does Michelle Williams consistently find these great awards-worthy roles to play in indie films? Or do they find her? Whichever came first, Williams has again found a great role that, if there is any justice come awards season, will garner her attention for her acting in Meek's Cutoff.*
It's a western, directed by Williams' collaborator on Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt, and is as spare as the genre can get, in a field that has many a furrow in it from the trails blazed by John Ford and Howard Hawks—the wagon train. The Tetherow-Gately-White Party, however, has slightly derailed.
When we first encounter the group, three families, three wagons pulled by oxen, a clutch of horses and guide Steven Meek (an unrecognizable but nicely gruff Bruce Greenwood), they are fording a river—Meek and his horse first, then the three women (Williams, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson) carrying precious cargo in what looks like slow-motion—they're actually fighting the current—while the men (Will Patton, Paul Dano, Neal Huff and Tommy Nelson) hang back with the wagons.
Immediately, you're struck with differences: this first sequence is silent, except for the effects track—indeed, you don't hear any dialog until a night-time reading of Genesis, just the white-noise of the river, the thunder of the wagons through the dirt, punctuated by the squeaks of the wheels; the wagons are not tarped as tight as a bonnet as with most trail-films, the coverings hang loose and look like there's been some shifting going on, and the wagons are painted with washed-out colors, not for decoration, but as a vain attempt at preservation.
It's not your TV-"Wagon Train," with a cook and several scouts and organized dancing. This is work. The women get up in the hours before dawn, gathering sticks for fires and grinding coffee. The men get up with the sun and hook up the animals and talk amongst themselves about what they should do next, voting the direction. The women hang back and tend and mend, listening to the muted conversation, their opinions not wanted or appreciated.
It's tempting to call it a "feminist" Western, even though the roles of the women are in marked contrast to the spunky women of past cinema wagon-trains, who would up-braid their cow-like men and take charge during hysterical child-births. It is only "feminist" by omission—the women are strong (as they'd have to be on such a trek), but they are clearly the low men on the societal totem pole, offering opinions, but not expecting them to be taken seriously, and often completely dismissed. More's the pity as the party appears to be lost in the desert, with no water in sight and mutterings that Meek might not know what he's doing and may be deliberately leading them astray...although why is never thought through.
Austere and simple, with moments of truly inspired beauty, Meek's Cutoff is a study in bare-bones story-telling, where, like travelling a desert with no end in sight, the details are important...even critical. The sameness of the journey is only broken by fleeting incidents, often at the edge of sight, and sometimes on the far side of reason. At some point, the possibilities of a future life recede into memory and are replaced by hopes to survive the day, and plans are discarded, like the furniture routinely tossed out of the back of the wagon, because they might be an unnecessary burden—a useless extravagance.
Slowly, but surely, you realize that this is the message of Meek's Cutoff right up to the point where the film ends—in a way that is sure to aggravate some viewers (there was quite a bit of grumbling at the showing I attended). But, there is no other way to end it. The destination of the movie has been made—the point has been reached. And even if the pilgrims are not where they aim to be, geographically, they are, spiritually, at the point where civilization can begin, on the far side of knowledge.
Meek's Cutoff is a fine Matinee, I reckon.
* It's fairly historically accurate if you're familiar with the high desert areas of the Williamette section of Eastern Oregon, leading to the Deschutes River to approximately where Bend, Oregon is today. There was a Steven Meek, he did lead wagon trains, he had a bad reputation for getting lost, but the historic trail still bears his name.