Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Meek's Cutoff

Meek's Cutoff has generated some buzz lately, for being that movie you have to see and pretend to enjoy whether or not you have any actual desire to do so. It's certainly a divisive movie. Complaints were audible as the viewers in my theater exited the film. Of course, also audible were awe, veneration, and theory-generation along the lines of "were they actually dead the whole time?" I thought this theory was a bit silly when I overheard it, but this line of thinking eventually led to my own conclusions. I understand what, I think, this person was trying to communicate. Meek's Cutoff approaches fantasy. It takes place in a mythical, intermediate space in which new things become possible. Really, the movie is about the settlers negotiating this new space. The premise of Meek's Cutoff is loosely based on a real historical anecdote, which, in a way, adds to its mythos. In the film, a fur trapper named Meek claims to know an alternate route around the Blue Ridge Mountains. Taking him at his word, a group of settlers follows him. They become hopelessly lost, and lost they remain.

As the settlers travel further from the society they left behind, the various power structures that they have brought with them begin to dissolve. The audience is there to witness this transformation, nothing more. Because so little is going on, it is relatively easy to pick up on the subversion of power that occurs throughout the movie. Also, being a Western, much of this movie pits the settlers against the vast and hostile geography they find themselves in.

For maybe the first 15 minutes of the movie, you don't get a good look at the characters. They are huddled into themselves, stumbling silently across the dusty landscape. The film is shot in the unusual aspect ratio of 1:33, which, as producer Todd Haynes has noted, corresponds to the narrow visibility of the women's bonnets. Our visual scope already truncated, Reichardt continues to withhold information. Beginning with this tableau, Reichardt slowly closes in. In the beginning of the film, the women obviously operate on a separate plane from the men. At intervals, the men separate into a small council, to confer about the goings on. Meanwhile, the women climb about, collecting firewood and wondering amongst themselves what fate the men will pick for them.

As the men lose power, we gain access. This transition is subtle. From the outset, we are in the perspective of the women, unsure of where we are, or what, exactly, is happening. The low-key lighting and muddled dialogue is meant to frustrate us, to make us empathize with the women. As power structure begins to collapse, the audience is given more access to the film-world. Close ups appear; the dialogue becomes clearer. We are able to engage, finally.

When it has become apparent that the group is truly lost, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) picks up a gun and reigns in a new power paradigm that will be subverted to its farthest point by the moment that film ends.

As with most great works, I think this one is most visible after the fact, when it becomes clear just how impeccably every piece was placed. The last frame is a revelation, and a bit of a shock. There are no pyrotechnics, just evocative framing, a mental breathe of fresh air, making you exhale, saying something between "oh" and "whoa."

Thanks for the photos
one, two, and three

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely. The muddled dialogue in the first half of the film had me as irritated with Meek and some of the other lead male characters as the women must have been. Three cheers for Reichardt.