Toronto 2010: The Northwest wagon train of ‘Meek’s Cutoff’

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With its North American premiere at the new Bell Lightbox venue in Toronto, Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ announced itself as one of the major works of recent American independent cinema and quite likely a film that will be talked about for years to come.

Set in 1845 and based on real events, it tells the relatively simple story of a wagon train made up of three families -- the cast includes Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Tommy Nelson and Neal Huff -- being led across what is now Oregon by a trapper and scout named Stephen Meek. Brought to vivid, roaring life by Bruce Greenwood -- resplendent in buckskin and prodigious beard -- Meek takes them on a supposed shortcut, and they are unable to find water. When they capture a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux), the group, with the exception of Meek, reluctantly agree to use their captive as their guide.


Reichardt’s two previous films, ‘Old Joy’ and ‘Wendy and Lucy,’ both assayed aimless sort-of hipsters in the Pacific Northwest. In a sense, ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ is the origin story for those films, the tale of how a certain iconoclastic mind-set made its way to the region. Here, Reichardt’s signature airy openness allows the film to be many things at once -- feminist allegory, parable of American imperialism, a plea for open-minded inquiry and simple human kindness. Throughout, Reichardt’s filmmaking assures that everything comes across in a manner both emphatically declarative and defiantly subtle.

Reichardt has here both contracted and expanded her style, narrowing her focus onto the most specific and sometimes slightest of incidents to convey her drama, while broadening her thematic horizons. Though much of the film is made up of simple tasks such as the group walking, fixing a wheel or preparing meals, they build an accelerating sense of importance. As the characters, especially the women, emerge from the anonymity of their bonnets and beards to take on personalities, they come to seem less like ciphers and more like people.

While the film is in its way challenging and rigorous, this is not insular, hair-shirt filmmaking. The movie is Reichardt’s most accessible film and there is no reason it couldn’t appeal to the same people who buy albums by Fleet Foxes or turned up to see ‘There Will Be Blood.’ As well, the recent popularity of ‘heritage brand’ clothing -- made by companies in business for decades or longer -- and even the recent Levi’s ad campaign celebrating the wonders of manual labor and genuine work, show to my mind that ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ is tapping into undercurrents of something already in the cultural consciousness.

(Although, to perhaps allow another perspective on the film, a man next to me leaned over unprompted at one point during the screening and said, ‘It’s kind of boring.’ Later, as the credits began, he also asked, ‘Where’s the after-party?’ Make of that what you will.)

For the Q&A Reichardt, who premiered the film at the Venice Film Festival, was joined onstage by actors Henderson and Huff. Greenwood and Patton had been seen in the venue earlier, but did not participate.

‘I’m not going to talk about the ending,’ Reichardt initially said when asked about the film’s enigmatic, open-ended finale. (In short, it is not concretely resolved whether the settlers find water or reach a destination.)

‘To me it was a hopeful ending,’ said Henderson. ‘I feel they’ll be all right, I think they have to be all right because of what happens in history. Obviously some them made it. I feel it has to be uplifting, otherwise, it’s too much.’

‘You can look at the ending in a bigger sense,’ added Reichardt, saying something after all. ‘We all know what happens, how it ends, there’s a golf course on the other side. You know, the bigger ending.’

To prepare for the shoot, the director explained that the actors had a one-week ‘pioneer camp’ in which they learned various old-fashioned ways of doing things. Each pair of actors, each couple, was also allowed to choose the things they thought their characters would have in their wagon.

Among the very first questions (asked by someone with a distinctly Canadian accent) was whether in the story the character of Stephen Meek, full of bluster and bad ideas, was inspired by former Vice President Dick Cheney.

‘He was spoken of at times,’ Reichardt said. ‘But Stephen Meek was a real man, he was a fur trapper and in the real story of Stephen Meek he led 200 wagons out into the Oregon desert in a shortcut and so he’s mostly inspired by himself. But he maybe has a little Dick Cheney in him.’

Answering another question, Reichardt noted that it was her frequent screenwriter Jon Raymond who first came across the story of Stephen Meek while doing historical research on Oregon.

‘The more we started investigating the story, it seemed so contemporary in so many ways,’ Reichardt said. ‘The story of someone leading people into the desert and seemingly not knowing what he was doing and being completely dependent on someone who was totally culturally different for being able to make any kind of advancement. So that was what drew us to it.’

-- Mark Olsen