I don’t much care for Westerns. As I kid, I always found them traumatic – I empathised with the Indians, and didn’t understand why it was expected that I side with the settlers. The Indians, with their bare-chests, determined stoicism and the ability to melt, ghost-like, into the desert was far more beguiling to my seven-year old self than the fresh-faced bravado of the cowboys and their impractically clad ladyfolk. Besides, I always thought, it’s the Indian’s land. Why shouldn’t they defend it? As I got older, I found out about colonialism, genocide and manifest destiny; and my hatred of those cocky, wide-brimmed bastards who defended the endless wagon-trains from native assault became solidified.
With this in mind, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Meek’s Cutoff, a film about just such a wagon train, winding its way westwards through the north-eastern corner of Oregon. But from the off, it was clear that this was no action-packed cowboys n’ Indians flick. The pace is positively glacial, and the director Kelly Reichardt has clearly no romantic delusions about the old west. Dialogue is kept to a minimum through much of the first twenty minutes; the setting really speaks for itself. Great care is taken to use intimate shots of the settlers to convey the emotional depth of their situation; expressing the uncertainty, fear and despair of a life on the trail with little more than an etching on a broken caravan, or the absence of a once treasured pet canary. Before too long, though, the central plot emerges from the general atmosphere of exhaustion – the train desperately needs to find water, and only have the vain and seemingly incompetent frontiersman Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to help them find it. That is, until they capture an enigmatic Native American (Rod Rondeaux), who soon is ordained as the guide in Meek’s place. In the end, the film gives little resolution to the plot’s overarching questions – something that usually irritates me intensely about American indie cinema – but I nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed it.
Why? Simply because this film is the perfect antidote to all those godawful Hollywood Westerns. Much more subtly than the blunt moralism of Dances with Wolves or the brisk nihilism of No Country for Old Men, Meek’s Cutoff is quite simply a complete and thoroughly satisfactory deconstruction of the American frontiersman. The swaggering, thick-bearded adventurer Meek is gradually measured out as a purveyor of nothing but tall tails and male bravado; a reassuring and charismatic figure in the comfort of a frontier town or a 60s living room, but a deeply unconvincing prospect for the settlers, who gradually lose their trust in him and, in the case of Emily Tetherow (played beautifully by Michelle Williams), actively grow to hate him. By the end of the film, Meek’s empowered-outsider status has evaporated, becoming by his own admission little more but a follower of the elder of the three settler patriarchs, Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton), who persuades the rest of the caravan to follow the path made by the Indian instead.
However, the Indian is not presented as the wise noble savage to Meek’s hubristic barbarian. Rather, the Indian is entirely inscrutable – a figure who neither the audience nor the other characters have any understanding of. His appearance is mysterious – we do not know if he is a scout, a medicine man, a lunatic or an outcast, as his occasional mutterings in a Native American language are left untranslated. The audience, like the settlers, are left to interpret his enigmatic movements, gestures and speech; but throughout his motives and ultimate objectives remain obscure. Here is no stereotyped Indian, existing only to underscore the virtue or depravity of white men. He is a true to himself, existing on his own terms and following his own path, whatever that may be. Whites are merely left puzzled in his path, making their own varied interpretations of his role in their own egoistic lifeworld.
To me, this dichotomy – between Great Mystery and Great Men – reflects the driving goal for the American Dream, and this film represents its recent apogee. The American people, like the settlers, are faced with two great visions of the road ahead, one requiring them to put their faith in the supposed hero of Manifest Destiny, now exposed as nothing more than a brutal and vainglorious charlatan. But as they gradually run out of the most basic of necessities, the alternative remains as elusive as ever. What direction the American people will take now is, to me, highly uncertain. But personally, the most enduring image I have of Meek’s Cutoff – of how out of place these ordinary Victorian whites looked in the middle of the wild – suggests the key question to be asked now is not “where are we going?”, but “how well are we adapted to the world as it is?”