Sunday, January 29, 2012

Meek's Cutoff

My wife watches bemused as I drive about town – or wander about a department store – with an elusive destination evading me, always giggling just around the next corner. She doesn’t even bother suggesting that I ask for directions. What’s the point? I’m a man. I should be able to find things on my own – or die trying.

The new and terrific western Meek’s Cutoff toys tantalizingly with this sexual conundrum. It’s as if God instilled in the sexes the wrong occupations. Women are in charge of the hearth and home while their men venture out, often to their doom. Reverse the roles and women would simply ask for directions, get the food, and be home for supper, returning to their men who have a roaring fire waiting. And who have had little opportunity for self-destruction other than, I suppose, burning down the house.

The story of the movie is simple enough. Three families, their covered wagons pulled by cattle creaking and shuddering over ruts in the rough prairie and sloshing through rivers and streams, are lost. Actually, as one of the men carves into a fallen tree, they are all capital letters LOST. Their burly leader, Meek, has led them on a shortcut, through a cutoff. He should have let his wife draw the maps in the dirt and stuck to building fires.

And that’s almost all there is for a plot. Three families moving from an abundance of water – the opening scenes have the wet stuff flowing and dripping and splashing everywhere – to gradual, inevitable collapse from thirst. Along the way, director Kelly Reichardt treats us to some of the most poetic images I’ve yet encountered in this most poetic of genres. My favorite is an elegant dissolve (where one image replaces another by slowly superimposing over the first). Wagons exit the frame to leave an expanse of wilderness with a river running through it. Then a man on horseback followed by wagons appears like a mirage travelling through the clouds.

Midway through the movie, first appearing and then disappearing, ghostlike to Emily (Michelle Williams) and then gradually taking concrete form is a lone, aged Native American man. He doesn’t speak English, but he speaks a universal language that Emily intuitively understands. He’s a guide, their map just waiting to be opened. Meek just sees him as a threat, someone to shoot.

Emily, the movie, and Reichardt think of women and men using two simple equations: women are at home with chaos, men with destruction. Women realize that the world is beyond their control and humbly seek help toward understanding. Men draw rifles from their saddlebags and blow their problems away.

Emily, often photographed peering out through the folds of her bonnet, wants to take this strange, potential savior into their fold, feed him, and follow him, trusting blindly that he’ll lead them to water. Meek is introduced emerging from a tent as a wild animal of a man. Before turning toward us, all we see is a tangle and snarl of unkempt hair. He often takes just the men aside and plots their next move like a general orchestrating a skirmish.

Of course, Emily and Meek are at odds, leading to two confrontations. One is a tense standoff, him with a pistol, her with a rifle, their potential guide in the middle. The other another great poetic moment by a lone tree, proof that there is water to be found if he meekly surrenders to Emily’s better instincts.

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