This film is best summed up by its opening titles. We are not introduced to the experience by a swooping virtual camera, flashy computer generated imagery or a booming, bombastic score; it is instead cross-stitch that greets us. A static shot of a hand-sewn sign, rough and low-key but authentic because of this; It is also a touch of distinctly feminine film-making. That taut tapestry is Meek’s Cutoff.
After this title card we are thrown right into the action, so much as the term is applicable as a small three wagon line attempts a river cross. The people are silent and more shockingly still they are successful without reservation; they simply go from one side to the other, it ‘aint no thing, just another day in a journey that has already cost them five weeks of hard living.
It is an unspoken rule of storytelling that you show only the scenes that further the plot and/or characters; it can be assumed that every protagonist eats three square meals each day but you need only show the one that is poisoned or interrupted by intimate revelations. Meek’s breaks this rule by consisting entire of uneventful moments such as this river crossing; otherwise banal, everyday activities that are made interesting by their contextually alien nature.
These moments don’t simply tell the story, they are the story. There is no life on the trail besides the now, nothing worth thinking on besides your responsibilities.Don’t fret though, the film is not as boring as all that may sound. Drama is introduced as it is revealed that the Mountain man the group had hired as their guide appears to have gotten them lost in the still uncharted center of the then untied state of America.
This storyline is subtly introduced though, as are all the films ideas, because we are forced into watching on from afar as all the women are. When the film does deliver its few pieces of exposition they come from a distance and so we are only able to make out every second word. Even if we were given a voice or a valid vote we simply wouldn’t have the knowledge necessary to use it. This, at its core, is what Meek’s appears to be about, though it is unique in that its feminism is entirely unforced; scenes are not played for any particular point, they are simply played with the hope that the point will come to you.
This same approach is taken when the film later deals lightly with the concept of colonization as a sort of re-enforcement of its mediation on subjugation. The caravan captures an Indian and despite Meek’s desire to see him dead they use him to guide them towards water. Though there is a deep conflict as to whether this captive native has their best interests at heart we are never given any clear revelation; he doesn’t slowly learn their language and become accepted into the group, though nor does he show himself to be an out-and-out savage. We are simply asked to question our own loyalties and wonder on which side we would place our wager. Are we, the modern audience, so enlightened that we can see him as an equal or are we still inclined to side with the cowboy even when all illusion of the mythological Old West is gone?
This is then a film that lets its lacks tell a tale; it’s what isn’t there that informs us and this is a somewhat shocking approach for an audience so accustomed to being spoon-fed their stories. The film is simply a series of scenes set in the ‘now’ and it is this immediacy that makes the mundane mesmerizing. I do wish that the film had utilized its hypnotic nature a little better, perhaps following through with a knock-out punch, as its minimalism is almost too efficient to be entirely effective; though I do understand, and appreciate, why this is not the case and why we are instead left with a relatively empty ending.
Unlike something like Somewhere though this emptiness has a meaning beyond the literal, it is through this quality that the whole journey becomes an existential affair. We are not g
iven character depth because these people are not want to discuss the past in this situation and because there is no past. There is no narrative arc because life has no narrative arc and because there can be no progress here, once you reach the top the rock simply rolls back down to the bottom of the hill so that you may start again. Thus the film is at once as intimate as any real-life journey and as alienated as any Beckett-esque purgatory; you are there in the scene with these immigrants, but lord only knows where that puts you. So it is that you simply have to deal with the day-to-day, make your way and leave asking ‘Why?’ for the dead.