Nothing makes me lose my appetite like American politicians and their nauseating patriotic rhetoric. I was happy on November 6, not only because Mitt Romney lost, but because the bullshit that had clogged media outlets and kept my stomach in a constant state of queasiness would finally come to an end.
With the presidential inauguration and the State of the Union address approaching, however, my Twitter feed will once again fill with quotes of the hope, strength, and spirit of the American people.
This weekend, to give my tender stomach a rest, I decided to skip out on schmaltzy new releases like Lincoln. Instead, I saw director Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, the pseudo-Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010), which, despite its low budget, boasts big names like Michelle Williams and Paul Dano.
Reichardt’s previous features, River of Grass (1994), Old Joy (2006), and Wendy and Lucy (2008), all deal with protagonists that are lost in life in present-day America. Characters seek freedom and redemption on the mythological American highway or frontier, only to find that it no longer exists.
Meek’s Cutoff, in contrast, deals with characters that are literally lost in America. The film follows a band of settlers and their guide, Stephen Meek, as they attempt to cross the High Desert of Oregonin 1845, but become hopelessly disoriented in the infinitely shifting, starkly beautiful landscapes of the West.
Now, Westerns are usually the stuff that American political rhetoric is made of. In its classical form, the Western dramatizes and resolves the conflict between two oppositional values within American ideology: on the one hand, civilization, community, and family; and on the other, individualism and freedom of the frontier. Obama similarly attempted to resolve this conflict in his acceptance speech, saying, “while each of us will pursue our individual dreams, we are an American family and we rise or fall together.”
Luckily for me, Meek’s Cutoff belongs to a group of films called Revisionary Westerns, which, since the 1960s, have been breaking down American ideology faster than politicians can rebuild it.
Meek’s Cutoff juxtaposes the mythology of the Western with the grim reality of pioneering, suggesting that the freedom of the frontier only ever existed in our imaginations. Instead of offering the pioneers freedom from societal constraints, the bleak landscapes play host to the relentless persistence of cultural norms. The settlers encounter a Native man, and struggle over whether to kill or enslave him. The female pioneers are consistently relegated to scrubbing dishes and darning socks, while the men make decisions just out of earshot.
Meek’s Cutoff also specifically critiques the filmic Western, invoking its tropes only to debunk them. Meek, the iconic, ruggedly masculine cowboy, spouts as much rhetoric about American freedom as any politician. His authority is consistently undermined, however, as his claim to know the West like the back of his hand amounts to nothing, and the settlers grow more and more disoriented. When the fabled standoff occurs, it doesn’t take place between two cowboys, but between the Native man, a woman, and Meek.
Without the structuring ideology of the Western, the film’s narrative structure collapses, and the viewers become as hopelessly lost as the settlers. Meek’s Cutoff eschews traditional plot structure in favour of slow, subtle movement, so that, thinking back on the film, it becomes impossible to order the events. The seemingly directionless plot is emphasized by the film’s unnavigable physical spaces. The heavily disorienting cinematography makes austere, marker-less landscapes even more confusing for the audience than it is for the settlers.
If Reichardt’s previous films ask how to live in present-day America, Meek’s Cutoff asks how to make an American narrative film when you no longer believe in America. So if you, like me, are sick of being told to have faith in the Star-Spangled Banner, Meek’s Cutoff is just what the doctor ordered.
Lilya Hassall is a U3 Cultural Studies student. Forays Into Film and Feminism is a bi-weekly column about alternative films, why she likes them, and where to see them.