Not related to Meek’s Cutoff; Related to my short film
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Be forewarned that I deal heavily with the ending, the story arc, and what it implies meaning, “Y’ar, thar be spoilers ahead.” But see this movie… But take a No Doz beforehand if you have a short attention span.
I saw this movie last Friday and I’ve been flummoxed ever since.
The way it begins with water and ends without it. The way it begins without any traditional setup–including how Meek convinced them to follow him–and ends without any conclusion.
See, this film’s “problem” is that the outward plot and conventional beats of storytelling openly defy what is actually going on. This is because conventional beats imply the destiny of characters. As Kate Stables wrote in her review, “”What’s manifest in Meek’s Cutoff isn’t destiny, but the difficulty of gauging truth, whether it concerns what’s over the hill, or within a human heart.” In other words, what we should be waiting for isn’t the destination, but the decision as to what the destination will ultimately be–water or death.
When Michelle Williams’s character, Emily, makes the decision to convince everyone else that the Indian knows what he’s talking about, she has figured out that the Indian is the only one, anymore, who may even possibly know where water is, so when he begins to signal and speak in Nez Perce that’s unsubtitled, she tells everyone what she believes she’s hearing.
And not in a suddenly-clairvoyant way where she finally truly understands what he’s saying but in a “He’s gotta be saying this, for the love of God” kind of way. It’s her final act of desperation to save this group.
The viewer, though, isn’t privy as to whether or not this final act of desperation yields them any luck.
At this point, I’m pretty sure watching everyone die would be really disappointing.
Destiny and Gauging Truth
While the men are tending to destiny, the women are left to be the quiet jurors. The women can’t speak openly with the men about the plight of having no water and being lost and “what the fuck are we supposed to do with this Indian who’s just as lost as us?” but they can speak quietly, by making broken, elliptical statements to their husbands in such a way that guides them without being subordinate. The last thing anyone wants is a fight of any kind.
As a result, this movie exists in a weird juxtaposition in which the outward plot and conventional beats are pointing us toward destiny while the inner workings and the quiet force of the women is truly taking us where we want to go.
The film itself is within every single detail of what these people are doing on this trail. It is built to request the empathy of the viewer, only to have any emotions toward these characters pummeled by the irresolute ending.
Just as their wagons are built to get them across the country, this movie is built to get us from water to water… Only, just like the characters and one of the wagons, we don’t quite ever make it.
The Viewing Experience
The focus of a film isn’t on its broader story but on its intricate parts and, as a result, takes its time.
In order to better to pull the viewer into these intricacies, Meek’s Cutoff is shot using the old “Academy Ratio,” or 4:3, or square like televisions older than HD.
To Director Kelly Reichardt, “It gives you this foreground: you get the height over the mountains and the sky. But it also worked for the vision that the women have in their bonnets, this lack of peripheral vision and this straight-ahead, no-nonsense perspective. And then also if you’re traveling seven to twelve miles a day, and you have widescreen, it’s like, ‘There’s tomorrow! I can see it in the screen! And there’s yesterday!’ So this was a way of keeping you locked in the moment and not getting ahead of where the emigrants were. I think that helped build tension, because you could not see what was around the next corner.”
What is interesting about using this aspect ratio is that it enhances the area which our eyes are drawn to in the sense that our characters remain in the center of the screen the entire time since there’s really no left or right third of the screen.
Reaction to the Ending
When I went to see this film, the ending was the part that made the entire theater groan and say “That’s it?” Then the middle aged couples continue to talk about it during the credits.
But while everyone else was asking “Where’s the rest of it?” I was left asking “Why?”
Because it’s a complete film, it just doesn’t feel complete. It feels like it blacks out right before the third act.
From Emily’s perspective, the story begins at the river and when she’s convinced she’s found it again.
And so, since the story of the women is done before the story of their destiny, the movie ends without resolution.
One Last Thing
The Indian in this film speaks no English, only Nez Perce (I stayed through the credits to find out what language it was). And it isn’t subtitled.
I’ve always felt that subtitling words that the main characters don’t understand cheapens the experience for the viewer. We’ve come far along on this journey with them and, now, you’re giving us more information than them for the first time. The biggest offender of this is the film adaptation of Everything is Illuminated. Elijah Wood’s character is only understanding what Alex is telling him and yet the viewer has subtitles to make sure every word is understood.
So, to me, this was a gutsy move driven by the story. But I can understand if it’s frustrating. I’d like as much as anyone else to know just what the hell he was actually saying.
But that’ll probably have to wait until the DVD.