Meek’s Cutoff and the Terror of the Beautiful

In the summer of 1998, during an epic road-trip out to the American West, I drove from Idaho into Oregon, heading for Eugene. I was still recovering from the surprise of having found out that the landscape of Idaho had been nothing quite like I expected it to be. (Idaho; potatoes, right? So, flat fields, you’d reckon? Well, no. Try pine forests, foaming rivers, and mountains instead.) Another surprise awaited me as I entered Oregon. I associated that state with the Pacific Northwest, with lush green forests, grey skies, cold and damp days, and much of the scenery that I had just passed through in Idaho. But eastern Oregon was arid, stark, parched landscape dotted with scrub and brush, rocky and often thorny.  I realized the Pacific coast was a long way away, that the visions of the Pacific Northwest that had so entranced me and brought me here were still a day’s drive away.

I wonder if my surprise was a much milder version that might have afflicted travelers like those portrayed in Kelly Reichardt‘s Meek’s Cutoff, as they wander, lost, disoriented, and thirsty, through a landscape that must have seemed nothing quite like that promised them before they set off on their journey to the magical West. As we watch their trials and travails, transfixed by our present knowledge that a straight journey west will bring them to the unimaginable lushness of the Oregon coast, we are also daunted by the knowledge that their journey is one infected and crippled by uncertainty and fear: our hapless journeyers do not know where they are, they are not sure where they are heading, they do not trust their guide, and they are ever so conscious that for the original inhabitants of this land, their presence is not a welcome one.  They might be, as often described, ‘pioneers’ but for now, they seem to have taken on a task of now unimaginable complexity, one requiring physical and mental fortitude that might be beyond many, if not most of them.

I have written before on this blog, on the beautiful and deadly combination of the cruel and the sublime that characterizes the American West (for instance: here and here). Meek’s Cutoff is a stark cinematic testament to that: we are riveted by the land’s colors that change through the day as the sun describes its merciless march through the sky, by its stark expanses, its brooding silences. But we are also made uneasy by its utter indifference to human plans and bonds: whether water will be found and parched lips assuaged, whether loved ones will live on or die by the wayside, whether dreams will be sundered or realized, these are all of little interest to it. It merely provides the canvas; the humans describe their fates on it. And then, of course, there is the violence: we are reminded that when strangers met strangers in this land, the resulting encounters were often fatal.

Meek’s Cutoff is not an easy movie to watch, but it is rewarding all the same; the landscapes are entrancing, the human tensions are real; most importantly, the pace of the movie keeps step with that of its characters and reminds us of their daily state of being: slow, painful, grinding onward movement, all the while not knowing whether each step onward is progress or not.

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