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'Meek's Cutoff': A starkly different kind of western

Director Kelly Reichardt and frequent collaborator Jon Raymond tell it like it was in this re-creation of an ill-fated wagon train in 1845 Oregon. And in art imitating life, cast and crew faced their own travails during filming.

April 17, 2011|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY.
Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY. (Jennifer S. Altman / For…)

After a hand-stitched title card announces the year and place as 1845 Oregon, "Meek's Cutoff" shows the slow, laborious process of a small wagon train moving across open country. A river is crossed, water gathered, clothes wrung out, cookware scrubbed. Then, as one shot dissolves slowly into another, one barren landscape fading in from the last, the wagons and their guide seem to roll right across an expanse of open sky, an image at once rustic, fragile and mystical. "Meek's Cutoff" is by all technical definitions a western but also clearly something more.

The film, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, is based on the historical story of a wagon train that lost its way while on the Oregon Trail. The hundreds of wagons from the real adventure are here pared to those belonging to just three families — the wealthy Gatelys (Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano), the religious Whites (Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson) and the stalwart Tetherows (Michelle Williams, Will Patton). Once they all find themselves lost in a desert, unsure which way to head for the nearest water, their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), struggles to assert his authority even before they come across a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) who may or may not be inclined to help them. The settlers face the tough decision of whether to follow Meek, the Indian or strike out on their own.

Even as director Kelly Reichardt maintains a regular job teaching film at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., juggling publicity duties around her class schedule and taking a semester off for production, she has become a widely celebrated independent filmmaker of works noted for their spare vibrancy. "Meek's Cutoff," being distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, is the third film by Reichardt to be set in the Pacific Northwest, all written in collaboration with Jon Raymond. The pair were introduced by a mutual friend, filmmaker Todd Haynes. (Raymond also worked on the adaptation of Haynes' recent HBO miniseries, "Mildred Pierce.")

It was Raymond who first came across the story of Stephen Meek and his ill-fated wagon train. The duo soon began researching the journey, coming across not only Meek's own self-aggrandizing account of the trip but also numerous journals kept by emigrants on the rough crossing out West. "The journals are so contradictory to one another it's hard to imagine these people were even on the same trip," Reichardt said during a recent phone call from New York. "But I guess you travel in your own world and you have your own perspective."

"For me, one of the main interesting things that comes out of the diaries is the question among the pioneers as to whether Stephen Meek is evil or just stupid," Raymond said from his home in Portland, Ore. "That was an actual debate among the pioneers."

In some ways, the difficulties portrayed in the film were mirrored by the production itself in moving cast, crew, equipment, wagons and animals to the remote parts of eastern Oregon traversed by the historic settlers. It took two hours each way every day to get to the locations. Bodies of water scouted for a river crossing would be bone dry by the time the production was ready to shoot the scene, and like the original wagon train, they would have to move on in search of more water.

"For a film company, we left a pretty small footprint," Greenwood said of how the making of the movie could feel much like the travails of the wagon train itself. "There weren't that many people scrambling around, so it did feel like a small group against the elements."

Before filming, the actors all took part in a pioneer camp where they learned how to start a fire, work a coffee grinder, pitch a tent, lead oxen and a variety of other tasks they would be performing while re-creating life on the wagon train. In something like an action scene, more than a full minute of screen time is given over to watching Williams load, fire, reload and again fire a rifle as a call for the men to come back from their search for water after she first spots the lone Native American scout.

That sense of process, the daily details of migrants making their way across the country with only basic tools and their own sense of purpose, was one thing that intrigued Reichardt while making the film. The reality stood in stark distinction from the action-heroics of a typical gun-slinging western.

"I just remember going through those first journals and thinking how different the whole tone of the going West story was, compared to what the film genre gives you," added Reichardt. "The women's journals were so trance-like, the opposite of the continuous climactic moment that westerns bring. The days and the landscape just become one.

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