In Transit: Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff
Morrison, Susan, CineAction
Spoiler Alert: In the course of this paper I discuss the film's ending.
I saw more films this year at the Toronto International Film Festival than I have been able to in past years and while there were lots that were notable, I wasn't captivated by any one film. Throughout the 2 weeks (actually 4 as press screenings begin in mid-August prior to the September opening day), I would ask people to recommend films they considered strong, which is how I arrived at a public screening of Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff on the second last day of the festival. I hadn't found her previous film, Old joy (2006), particularly interesting and had missed Wendy and Lucy (2008) altogether. The recommendation plus my curiosity at seeing what an art house director like Kelly Reichardt was doing in (and would do with) the Wild West that was mid-nineteenth century Oregon prompted my presence in the theatre. My response? After a while, the initial novelties of both its idiosyncratic visual style and its minimalist narrative, which follows the meanderings of a small wagon train heading west to the Willamette Valley, wore thin. When the film ended, I went into denial like everyone else around me; surely that wasn't the ending ... it couldn't end like that, could it? And left the theatre mildly annoyed and curious as to what anyone saw in it.
I thought no more about it until two weeks later, as I began to watch an old cowboy movie on TCM called The Way West (1967), that I realized with a shock that it was in essence an Inversion of Meek's Cutoff. Covering the same territory, both literally and metaphorically, The Way West documents a journey taken by a wagon train traveling from Missouri across the plains and over the old Oregon trail to end at the Columbia River, the gateway to the promised land of the fertile Willamette Valley. In stark contrast to Meek's Cutoff, here was to be found everything that had been expunged from Reichardt's fiercely indie film: wide-screen panavision format, big stars (Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark), character development, action, drama, romance, a beginning and an ending, etc. Granted, it's not a great film (TCM gave it only 1 star); nevertheless, it is an interesting take on the classic western, mostly because of its mildly unconventional narrative, and, in the end, it does 'do what a film's gotta do', to paraphrase a catchphrase of the classic Western: flesh out a satisfying story for its viewers.
In light of this, Meek's Cutoff took on a new interest for me and I started to rethink my initial lack of response to the film. Here was provided the possibility of using The Way West as a foil to open up those areas of difference in Meek's Cutoff. The question (and quest) for me became one of trying to situate the tropes, conceits and peculiarities that constitute Meek's Cutoff in a generic context as a western in order to tease out Reichardt's take on the form. In a similar way, the historical record has to be taken into account. While the events in The Way West are pure fiction, based on a 1949 Pulitzer-prize winning novel by A.B.Guthrie Jr., those in Meek's Cutoff are not. (1) The film's title and general storyline refer to a well-known and well-documented incident in the history of the Oregon Trail. My purpose is not to measure the film against fact for historical accuracy--after all, it's not a documentary--but to use the historical fact to mark out and expose the changes made in its transcription from fact to fiction.
Historical background of the Meek Cutoff (2)
Prior to 1846, Oregon was not part of the United States, but a region jointly occupied by the US and Great Britain that included present-day states of Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Montana in addition to the province of British Columbia. This area had been Initially explored and 'claimed' by the Hudson's Bay Company whose trade-centred forts dotted the landscape, as well as American missionaries intent on converting the pagan Indians. …