“Hell is full of bears,” says the dramatically hirsute trapper and explorer Stephen Meek in Kelly Reichardt’s recent film about emigrant travelers lost in the arid wastes of eastern Oregon in the summer of 1845. About a thousand waterless miles farther along—miles punctuated by Meek’s muttered complaint—the trapper remarks, “Hell is full of Indians.” But he’s not done yet. “Hell is full of mountains,” Meek notes, in a final report of what he has found in the hell called life that, we are invited to conclude, has included a lot of all three.
The Stephen Meek lost in Meek’s Cutoff is a man of opinions not only about hell but about men and women. Played by Bruce Greenwood, he appears to ride mainly in the wake of the wagon train—not in the front as a guide might be expected to do—and he spreads his thoughts around. “Women are created on the principle of chaos,” he tells Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), wife of Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton). “Men are created on the principle of destruction.” These ponderous observations are among the few audible words in this minimalist film that follows the wagon train across rivers and up hill and down dale, while unfolding a parable about an elusive human truth that must be teased out like the solution to a problem in sudoku. We shall address the elusive truth below.
But first I want to mention the one thing that Kelly Reichardt—who has made several films about travelers in the American West—has got exactly right: the harsh glory of the landscape. The sun is like a hammer, the mountains in the distance like a wall, the rivers inviting and dangerous, the terrain all rocks and gravel dotted with gnarled brush that appears to have been born dead. The wagons creak across this barren ground, each pulled by a team of oxen. To watch is to understand both the difficulty and the triumph of successful passage to the lush Pacific coast we know lies at the end of the trail. Best of all is a sequence following the emigrants across a salt flat, the ground white, boundless, and dead level, marked by deep crevices, as if the earth had been paved with flagstones of salt. In such a place a person might die in a day.
The women of the film stride along pursuing the wagons at a brisk pace that is just short of panic. I was reminded of another great desert walking scene in which a man maintains a pace across a vast sandy waste, refusing to break into the run that would exhaust and kill him—the scene in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) where the Bedouin Gasim, left behind in the Nefud, steps out with only one idea in his head: to keep going. In Reichardt’s Oregon, the women in their bright print dresses and deep-visored sun bonnets exude determination, not just to cross the flat but to cross the country, plant themselves in the green Oregon littoral and make a life as safe and predictable as the cozy world left behind in Ohio or Indiana. The film is seen from the women’s point of view—the men are off by themselves, murmuring doubt and hope to each other while the women (and audience) strain to hear. There are long shots of women knitting, kneading bread, building fires—the tedious daily round of travel on the plains.
The Stephen Meek of history (1807-1886) did lead a wagon train across eastern Oregon in 1845 and many details of that journey are incorporated into Meek’s Cutoff. The historical train left St. Louis in May with nearly five hundred wagons, then split when it reached Oregon. Two hundred wagons with a thousand people followed Meek by the alternate route he had pioneered through the Oregon desert—the “cutoff”—but it was soon apparent that so large a company, including thousands of cattle, horses and sheep, would exhaust the route’s sparse water. In mid-journey the company of travelers rejected Meek’s route and insisted that he follow a different one, which he did.
The real Stephen Meek was accompanied by a new wife, warned the travelers that Indians along the way (Paiutes and Cayuses) might be hostile, led them to a lake of water too full of alkali for humans or animals to drink, and was roundly denounced for pushing the emigrants into a tight corner. One disgusted traveler, facing a daunting hill, angrily pledged, “When I get to the top of this hill, if I ever do, I am going to hunt for Stephen Meek and if I find him, I’ll kill him!”
These brave words were uttered in ignorance of Meek’s presence behind some nearby sagebrush. Mrs. Asa Peterson, one of the emigrants, described what Meek did next. “He stepped out with his gun in his hand and said, awful slow and cool, ‘Well, you’ve found me, go ahead with the killing!”
“The man wilted down,” Mrs. Peterson reported, “and didn’t have spunk enough to kill a prairie dog.”
But this bold Stephen Meek of history was not the man Kelly Reichardt wanted to make a movie about. She and writer Jon Raymond built their story around another incident from the 1845 crossing instead—the appearance of a hungry Warm Springs Indian who guided the company to the nearest source of water. The Indian is played by Ron Rondeaux, a horse wrangler and trainer of Crow and Cheyenne descent who grew up on the Crow Reservation in Montana. I am guessing he is a Crow speaker; in the film he is often talking to himself in a low-voiced murmur with a Siouan sound to it. The role does not demand much—mainly he stares with strained tolerance at whites who are acting out. Several are convinced the Indian is leading them into a trap in which all will be killed. The Stephen Meek of the film has nothing good to say about Indians. “They never dream of sparing a woman,” he remarks. He confesses to being a merciless killer of Indians himself— Blackfeet forced into a lake where Meek and friends shot them one by one in the water. Finally Meek takes offense at some harmless thing the Indian is doing—demands he stop, draws his pistol (single-shot flintlock, already antique in 1845), and advances aiming, just about to fire a ball into the Indian’s heart. The Indian’s look of contempt is so withering it would stop most men in their tracks, but not Meek.
This scene is the climax of Meek’s Cutoff and the turning point of the simple story it tells. The gist is a change in feeling about Indians experienced by Emily Tetherow, who is first among the travelers to see the Indian on his horse atop a bluff one minute, gone the next. Later, she meets him face to face while gathering firewood. She runs for the wagons and the Indian runs for the hills. In her panic she grabs her husband’s flintlock rifle and fires it at the bluff, then loads and fires again. The many steps required to load a flintlock are interesting to watch. Her second shot is even more pointless than the first, but establishes that Emily is frightened and thinking fuzzily.
In short order, Meek and Emily’s husband catch the Indian and lead him back to the wagons afoot. Meek wants to shoot him, but Solomon Tetherow thinks the Indian might know something useful—the way to water, for example. A day or two later Emily notices that one of the Indian’s moccasins is opening at the seam. She gestures to him, takes the moccasin and sews it up. “I want him to owe me something,” she explains to a friend.
But Meek does not relent, speaks ill of Indians at every chance, wants to hang this one from a wagon tongue. In the climactic scene where he advances to kill the Indian, it is Emily who intervenes, levels her flintlock rifle at Meek, and presents him with a stark choice. Meek is angry but not crazy and gives in, lowering the pistol. Emily has thus shed her traditional white woman’s panicky fear of the Indian’s savage otherness and feels instead sympathy and respect for him. She insists the company now trust and follow the Indian. “This was written long before we got here,” Meek remarks. “I am at your command.” The Indian leads them off in the direction of the Dalles on the Columbia River where they will rejoin the wagon train of history which had suffered a harsher fate, including burial of twenty-two or twenty-three dead emigrants along the way.
Meek’s Cutoff is impressive in the discipline of its method, but it reads better in outline than it plays on the screen, and the glory of the landscape is not enough to give heft and feeling to the elusive human truth that the filmmakers have been trying to tease out. Put into words, it has the pious ring of something about racial stereotyping hashed out in a seminar room. When a movie has a problem it is almost always a problem with the writing, and that is the case here. Characters and scenes are all terribly thin. Some people love gorgeous, wordless scenes, but I don’t: the whole film struck me as carefully worked out in a cerebral way, but completely lacking in genuine passion.
There were historical mountain men with a savage hatred of Indians—Liver-Eating Johnson, whose name says it all, for example—but the Stephen Meek of the film seems insubstantial in their company. It’s not Greenwood’s fault, but the script’s. Emily Tetherow’s change of heart is plausible without being interesting. I believe Michelle Williams could handle a big role, but hasn’t been given one. That leaves the landscape, much as it was in 1845, both frightening and beautiful, as the star of the show.
Meek’s Cutoff will showing this summer in theaters all over the country.