A Space For Ambiguity

A Space For Ambiguity: Revisionary Western Values in Meek’s Cutoff

By Molly Berg

Kelly Reichardt’s western film Meek’s Cutoff is a significant departure from the classic Western genre. Unlike the traditional Western landscape, which evokes certainty and reflects the Western hero’s confidence, the terrain in Meek’s Cutoff is unknown, and induces a pervasive doubt within characters. The film’s treatment of landscape also features a revision of the Western’s “code of values” that are typically embedded in the terrain, for the qualities that define white masculinity, or “what it means to be a man,” are upended by the film’s pivotal characters and the genre’s minorities—namely, the Indian and the woman.1 By challenging the assumptions of white, masculine “liberal ideology” that predominates the genre, the film destabilizes the very foundation of the classic Western.2 In doing so, the film introduces a new, “third” landscape that exposes the rich ambiguity that traditional Westerns too often conceal.3 The landscape in Meek’s Cutoff therefore represents far more than a physical vista—it maps out a mental uncertainty, as well. By introducing a “space of possibility,” the film embarks on a new terrain in which the elements of the genre’s paradoxical nature are left open to explore.4

In the opening scene of the film, the landscape already presents itself as a revision of the Western. Thompkins describes how “the land revealed on the opening pages or in the opening shot a Western is a land defined by absence: of trees, of greenery…above all, absence of water.”5 Ironically, the opening shot of Meek’s Cutoff depicts all of the elements that the conventional West lacks: the land is not dry, arid desert, but rather a fertile river valley. In the beginning of the classic western, “as soon as the figures of the horsemen appear, or a wagon train, as soon as the line is broken even by a sage brush or cattle or mountains, the signs of life undo the sill perfection of objecthood.”6 The opening shot, however, establishes the characters already in the frame. Traditionally, “the harshness of the Western landscape is so rhetorically persuasive that an entire code of values is in place, rock solid, from the outset, without anyone’s ever saying a word.”7 Though there is virtually no dialogue in the opening scene, there is no code of austerity embedded in the land, because the land doesn’t appear “rock solid” or “harsh.”8 It is lush and bountiful, and the characters reap the benefits: the slow-paced montage features the washing of clothes and pots, filling water buckets, and feeding their bird. Thompkins’ essay portrays the classic desert landscape as one that “does not give of bird or bush,” but both bird and bush are depicted in the opening scene.9 Tall grasses reach the height of the characters themselves, and not only do the chirps from the birdcage pierce the air, but the caw of bird overhead echoes as well—an indication that life abounds. This revisionary landscape is perplexing and atypical of the Western’s opening scene, and displaces viewers’ ability to predict or understand what’s to come. There is no singular figure riding through the buttes of Monument Valley that emerges as the definitive Western hero, but rather a group of anonymous travelers whose story is hard to envisage.

The film’s opening scene is indicative of how Reichardt wants to tell their tale through a revisionary vista. The landscape in the classic Western poses as “a tabula rasa on which man can write, as if for the first time, the story he wants to live. That is why the first moment of Western movies is so full of promise.”10 Although the opening shot of Meek’s Cutoff demonstrates a kind of “tabula rasa,” it is anything but a symbol of hope—the tree features an etching of the word “LOST.” The first moment of the film is thus not “full of promise,” bur rather ambiguity and doubt. Indeed, even the word itself arouses uncertainty, for it is hard to discern if the characters are truly lost—they seem to move around the scene with purpose and direction. If nothing else, the inscription certainly articulates how viewers feel: lost and disoriented. This lack of understanding place and space in the opening scene links to Eliade’s portrayal of the significance of beginnings: “nothing can begin, nothing can be done, without a previous orientation—and any orientation implies acquiring a fixed point.”11 By Eliade’s conjecture, the beginning of the film becomes problematic, for there is no sense of orientation or fixed point. The covered wagon is the only construction resembling an “axis mundi,” and yet it is not the “center” of the opening sequence—the river is.12 Although the film’s title shot of the rawhide informs viewers of the setting—Oregon, 1845—the opening scene still begs the question: where are they coming from, and where are they going? It is impossible to know, for as the travelers walk out of the frame, the camera remains on the river, obscuring any indication of what lies ahead.

Landscape in Meek’s Cutoff continually mitigates the role of the characters and emphasizes the role of the land. As the opening sequence shifts to the next scene, the shot of the river features a painstakingly slow dissolve into land as the two transitioning images superimpose each other. These overlapping shots depict the train of settlers—a mere speck in the distance—as they enter from the right of the frame. Slowly, carefully, and almost imperceptibly, the features of the land transform from lush riverbank to dry flatland. This naturalistic scene change not only evokes the vague changeability of nature, it also directs viewers’ focus to the landscape as a key figure. By maintaining the camera’s focus on the land itself, Reichardt creates the land as a central character, as “a personhood that lurks beneath the landscape’s surface.”13 Indeed, the characters themselves interact more with the land than they do with each other; some characters, like the Indian, demonstrate a closer relationship to the land than to humans. The film invites viewers to identify with nature, not just through camera choices but also through sound. With minimal dialogue and almost no musical soundtrack, the film is dominated by ambient sounds of nature. Regardless of element—rushing water, overpowering winds, or crackling of fire—the earth resounds as not only a character to watch, but also to listen to.

Nature presents itself as a character who, like the classic Western hero, carries a dark uncertainty buried deep beneath what appears on the surface. The ambivalence of the land appears in a variety of forms: “at any particular moment, the landscape wears an individual face with distinguishing features.”14 One notable form of the landscape is in the film’s night scenes, in which the land is shapeless and inscrutable. Aside from the dim light of a lantern or fire, the night renders the characters imperceptible in the dark space of the frame. The blackness also encourages viewers to listen closely to dialogue in order to make sense of the scene. For example, the first night scene of the film presents Emily and Solomon Tetherow discussing the ambiguous character of Stephen Meek. While the prior scene depicts a separation of male and female spheres—the men talk business while the women speculate from afar—the night scene brings the men and women together. Without the light of day, there is nothing to physically distinguish the characters’ mental boundaries between each other. These visually dark moments thus provide viewers with the most light into the characters’ world, for this space reveals the hidden uncertainties that otherwise go unsaid. Indeed, the exchange between Emily and Solomon is the first time viewers can access any character’s emotions or understand the purpose of their journey. Their subject of conversation is as dark and ambiguous as the night itself, for the couple cannot make out what kind of man Stephen Meek is or what his intentions truly are. It is here, fifteen minutes into the film and shrouded by night, that viewers learn of their wayward guide and how his two-week shortcut has turned into a five-week journey. Although the night scenes provide viewers with useful information, the characters themselves feel no closer to understanding; rather, it is yet another space in which their skepticism is manifested. In a noteworthy night scene later on in the film, Emily asks Solomon, “what do you see out there?” He responds, “Hard to say.”15 It is telling that Solomon’s doubt surfaces in the depths of the night. No one, not even the most levelheaded and hopeful man in the group, is free from the uncertainty embedded in the landscape.

The terrain’s physical structure emphasizes how the landscape exudes ambivalence and contradiction, qualities that the traditional Western landscape disregards. The land represents what Garber calls a “third,”which is defined as a “mode of articulation, a way of describing a space of possibility.”16 The land is, indeed, a space of possibility, for it ushers contemplation and dismisses certainty. The land’s physical vistas “function as a sign of overestimation—a mechanism of displacement from one blurred boundary to another.”17 Garber’s interest in the blurring of boundaries reflects Reichardt’s intent to dissolve the traditional Western’s sense of boundaries altogether. Limerick asserts, “the events of Western history represent, not a simple process of territorial expansion, but an array of efforts to wrap the concept of property around unwieldy objects.”18 The landscape in Meek’s Cutoff would certainly match Limerick’s description of an unwieldy object, for it is one that defies boundaries and ownership. The traditional Western notion of a grid is both invisible and futile. Limerick articulates how “Western history is a story structured by the drawing of lines and the marking of borders,” but there is no trace of such a structure in Meek’s Cutoff.19 The land’s indefinable boundaries are a product of its shape-shifting abilities. As such, the land engages in what Garber defines as a “category crisis.”20 Throughout the film, the land continually changes in setting; from river to desert, flatland to ridge, each new scene features an altered landscape. At times, the vision of the land defies what is actually there; for example, when Meek discovers water up ahead, the settlers rush forward in anticipation, only to discover that it is alkaline water and unfit for drinking. The image of water, initially seen as the ideal vision, subsequently becomes yet another roadblock in their path toward civilization. The land’s shifting features constantly challenge the settlers journey and threaten to dismantle the very ground they walk on. By resisting a definite category, the land does not only embody “crisis,” it also induces “crisis” in its occupants—they never know what to expect.21

The relationship between land and characters perpetuates the film’s tone of doubt and uncertainty. Traditional to the classic Western landscape, “distance, made palpable through exposure and infinitely prolonged by the absence of obstacles, offers unlimited room to move. The man can go, in any direction, as far as he can go. The possibilities are infinite.”22 This is not an accurate representation of traversing the land in Meek’s Cutoff. Although the film intricately portrays the overwhelming sense of distance and travel, it does not take up the optimistic tone of infinite possibility. Rather, the notion that man can go in any direction is the daunting realization that overwhelms these travelers. Additionally, the characters do not experience an “infinitely prolonged…absence of obstacles.” On the contrary, their journey routinely experiences obstacles, be it river or valley, that cut off characters’ access to what is on the other side. Views of the barren expanse of desert beget dips or ridges that obscure a clear trajectory, blocking and confining both character and viewer from “unlimited room to move.” The most notable example of this is when the settlers reach a sharp dip in the terrain and are forced to a halt. As they proceed warily, lowering the wagons with a rope and pulley system, Meek asserts to Emily, “you don’t know what’s over that hill. Could be water. Could be an army of heathens.”23 Not only are the land’s valleys treacherous—the steep grade destroys one of their wagons—but the hills prove equally dangerous in blocking knowledge of what is ahead.

The terrain is unrelenting, confusing, and limiting. The landscape’s entrapments thus induce a sense of confinement, which is further manifested through the film’s stylistic choices. The 4:3 aspect ratio departs from the classic wide angle, panoramic views of the landscape, and instead summons a boxed-in tension through a more squared perspective. The frame cuts off the audience’s view in the same way that the bonnet obstructs the women’s perspective; these strategies were implemented together, according to Reichardt, who claims that by “cutting out the peripheral, it does leave you with the idea that something could be there that you don’t know about.”24 The covered wagon creates the same effect; its vertical structure and narrowed opening perceives the landscape from a limited scope. A prominent moment of this is when Emily throws items off the wagon in order to lighten the load. The camera is inside the wagon with her and the hide cover encloses the frame. As Emily discards a sizable rocking chair, the shot remains on the back opening of the wagon, leaving viewers to watch this emblem of leisure and domesticity behind. As Solomon says, “it’s only weight now.”25 With the last inkling of civilization left in the dust, the film reinforces just how far removed they are from home. The restrictive cover of the wagon and the backward facing shot further reinforces the sense of physical limitations as the characters move deeper into the unknown.

The film’s tension resides in the land’s powerful hold on the characters, revoking the characters’ agency and control. Thompkins describes how in the classic Western genre, “the desert flatters the human figure by making it seem dominant and unique, dark against light, vertical against horizontal, solid against plane, detail against blankness.”26 The landscape in Meek’s Cutoff obliterates any notion of human flattery. Human figures are commonly portrayed as miniature and meager in comparison to the land’s enveloping magnitude. There is nothing overpowering or remarkable about the figures who roam the wilderness. Thompkins also describes the traditional Western landscape as a “territory to master,” but mastery in this film is nothing but a false construct of Meek’s ego.27 Thompkins writes, “Perhaps more than anything, nature gives the hero a sense of himself. For he is competent in this setting. He knows his horse will lead him to water, knows how to build a fire and where to camp.”28 If Meek is, to some extent, a vision of the Western hero, then his role does not fit with the classic hero’s relationship to the land. Although Meek wants to appear confident and determined leader, his fabricated self-assurance cannot fool anyone—perhaps not even himself. Meek’s Cutoff does not operate within a landscape that redefines man’s identity and highlight’s his control. In the conventional genre, “what isn’t there in the Western hasn’t disappeared by accident; it’s been deliberately jettisoned. The surface cleanness and simplicity of the landscape, the story line, and the characters derive from the genre’s will to sweep the board clear of encumbrances.”29 This desire to sweep the board clear of encumbrances is to oversimplify and distort the true experience of the West. In this way, the lack of “surface cleanness” in Meek’s Cutoff gets closer to an accurate portrayal of what settlers had to endure. The sparse language and lack of possessions is, as Thompkins points out, “deliberately jettisoned,” but it is a removal dictated by necessity rather than choice. Traveling light becomes the only mode of survival; simplicity is no accident, for there no other alternative.

The rhetoric of the landscape ascribes a normative “code of values” in which a quiet confidence pervades both land and hero “without anyone’s ever saying a word.”30 If silence is a factor that defines “what it means to be a man,” then Emily Tetherow might be the most masculine character of all.31 The importance of dialogue—or lack thereof—in Meek’s Cutoff should not go unnoticed, for the sound of silence often says more than the characters’ words do. The incongruity of the landscape is at the foundation of the settlers’ taciturnity; in the infrequent occasion that characters do talk, it constantly revolves around doubt. Nature, operating as a “third,” creates a realm of uncertainty and silence.32 Thompkins illustrates how “every word he [the Western hero] doesn’t say…is absent for a reason.”33 The silence in Meek’s Cutoff does not there for the “reason” of the hero’s quiet confidence, however. On the contrary, the lack of dialogue in the film reaffirms how the land cannot be properly understood with words. It is not a silence of austere conviction—it is a silence borne of inexpressibility. The land indicates that if language cannot resolve or reorient the settlers’ journey, then it’s best not to talk at all. The bombastic dialogue of Meek, in contrast, presents language as a device that defies and disorients characters from the ascetic truth of the land. His narcissistic stories and overbearing certitude articulate Meek as a character who deserves ample criticism. Emily demonstrates the significance of rhetoric in the film when she says of Meek, “I don’t blame him for not knowing. I blame him for saying he did.”34 Meek’s flaw, as Emily claims, is not his latent doubt—which everyone in the film feels—but rather his misuse of language. Lying about the knowledge of the land is a dangerous disservice, for in their conditions, mere words can concoct life or death situations. Silence thus is not just a code of the land; it’s a code of survival.

Perhaps the most enduring attribute in the Western landscape’s “code of values” is the presupposed superiority of the white male hero. Thompkins conveys how “this code and this hierarchy never appear to reflect the interests or beliefs of any particular group, or of human beings at all, but seem to have been dictated primordially by nature itself.”35 Nature is said to endow this inherent structure at the outset: “There is no need to say that men are superior to women, Anglos to Mexicans, white men to black; the scene has already said it.”36 This kind of binary code is one that Meek’s Cutoff, functioning as a third, seeks to undermine. Garber writes, “the third is that which questions binary thinking.”37 Naturally, the idea of the third is destabilizing for the western, a genre that is predicated on binary oppositions and clearly defined boundaries. The treatment of the Native American in Meek’s Cutoff offers a revised “code of values” in which the Indian emerges as dominating figure, not the cowboy. Traditional Western pictures suggest that “conquering the Indian symbolized and personified the conquest of the American difficulties, the surmounting of wilderness. To push back the Indian was to prove the worth of one’s own mission.”38 Ironically, the Native in Meek’s Cutoff is the figure leading their conquest. The settlers must rely on him in order to surmount the wilderness and live to tell the tale. Additionally, Indians were often perceived as savages who “invaded white boundaries,” but Reichardt’s film features a scene in which the men leave camp in order to track down the Indian, invading his boundaries. Indians were historically depicted as having a “primal rage,” but it is the “western hero,” Meek, who loses his temper and brutally beats the Native. Even when tormented, the Native remains calm and passive, while Meek’s explosive and childish hostility proves the white man’s hypocrisy.

The relationship between the Indian and the woman is a traditionally problematic one; the captivity myth generates the notion that Natives pose a threat to a white woman’s purity and safety. This particular lore is overturned in Meek’s Cutoff, for Emily and the Indian establish one of the stronger connections of all other characters in the film. In spite of a language barrier, Emily puts her faith in the Native and thereby inverts the power of the white male figure. In one of the more poignant moments of the film, Emily steps in to protect the Indian by threatening to shoot Meek. The power of this scene lies not only in the reversed roles of the white hero and savage other, but also in the fact that a woman controls the shots. Through scenes such as these, Meek’s Cutoff works to empower the commonly marginalized role of the woman in the Western genre. Although the film does not significantly depart from traditional depictions of women in the West, the telling of the story from a female perspective is nevertheless a notable revision in the male-dominated “code of values” that the landscape ascribes. These adjustments to the genre illustrate the power of the third in unraveling binary thinking, for it purports that assumptions of power have not, in fact, been “primordially dictated by nature itself.”40 To agree that the ascetic code of the landscape dictates that white men are superior would be to forget who wrote the code. White men, the writers of “liberal” history, established such values as a means to justify theirviolent actions and emulate the land’s aesthetic. The landscape cannot be reduced to a “code of values”—it’s too vast, too ambiguous to be outlined in such definite terms. If Meek’s Cutoff is any indication, the landscape does not summon inherent qualities of the earth; rather, the land reflects whatever attitude and code of values characters bring with them.

Fitting with the ambiguous narrative, the end of the film offers no conclusive ending—the story simply cuts off. The final scene leaves viewers eternally guessing at what the future holds for these settlers. Thompkins writes of the classic Western, “though it begins in anxious movement and passes through terror and pain, it continually ends in repose. A welcoming grove of aspens, a spring, and a patch of grass provide shelter and sustenance.”41 It would be difficult to claim that Meek’s Cutoff ends in redemptive “repose.” There is no “welcoming grove,” but there is, however, a sign of life—a tree. The sense of relief that this tree brings, however, remains dubious. At first glance, the scene evokes a sense of hope, as the young boy William is the first to reach the tree; the moment resonates to a scene at the start of the film when William reads a passage from Genesis on the tree of life and the Garden of Eden. Have they finally reached a semblance of Eden? The camera remains distanced with a long shot as the characters crowd around the tree, preventing a view of characters’ reactions and obscuring a detailed visual of the tree itself, which looks half alive, half dead. By Eliade’s discussion of sacred and profane space, a reading of this scene might suggest that the settlers have navigated profane space in order to find their sacred space, which ultimately comes to them in the shape of a tree. Eliade describes how the “center of the world” is marked by a “break-through from plane to plane” on three cosmic levels—”earth, heaven underworld.”42 Few natural creations are more symbolic of this “center” than a tree: a perfect representation of the “universal pillar” of the earth, as its roots spread to the underworld and its branches reach up toward the heavens.43 Although the tree fits the symbolic description of an “axis mundi,” the shot of the tree itself is not even the highest “fixed point” in the frame. Situated in a valley, the land inclines and towers above the tree in the background.44 If this tree is supposed to be a sacred space, “the center of the world,” then the future does not look bright for the film’s travelers: what does it mean if the tree is half dead? If viewers are to read this tree as they did the fallen tree at the start of the film, then the tree becomes further complicated. Is it soon to be a fallen tree, one in which someone might etch “LOST” into once again, or is it a sign of replenishment and life? The characters cannot tell, either. William points out to his mother, “a tree can’t live without water,” an uplifting thought.45 Yet Millie’s anxious words suggest the opposite of hope: she says, “we can still go back, we can try for Columbia.”

These disparate voices illustrate the confusion and uncertainty that permeates the scene, implicating viewers in this tension. Emily asserts, “we’re close,” and viewers want to believe her, but Thomas’ retort indicates a reasonable doubt: “well that’s just it. We’re close, but we don’t know what to.”47 Significantly, Meek’s input is one of submission, as he utters, “I’m at your command.”48 Meek’s response further complicates matters; is he finally admitting that they’re lost, or is he yielding to the leadership of Emily and the guidance of the Native? The final shots of the scene leave the fate of the characters open to interpretation, and create a space for viewers to contemplate their experience. The film’s last moments are revealing, ironically, through the enigmatic exchange and lack of dialogue between Emily and the Native. The shot-reverse-shot of Emily peering through the branches of the trees offers little insight; her frozen expression is nuanced and vague, and the Native stands so far from the camera that his features are impossible to see. Reichardt’s camera technique thus intentionally renders the effect of their silent stares inconclusive. Viewers thus feel as uncertain as the characters themselves: both don’t know whether the tree signifies the conclusion of a journey or the start of a new one. The film’s final shot features a lasting image of the Native as he walks off into the distance, his figure blending into the landscape that envelops him. The shot offers little resolution for himself or the travelers he leaves behind, and instead leaves open ended the question of whether both parties will survive. Though the end is confusing, unsatisfying, and off-putting, it is perhaps the only way Meek’s Cutoff could end—in doubt. An ending too complete would ruin the complexity that the film has managed to create.

The landscape and its embedded code of values is not only disoriented in Meek’s Cutoff—it is remapped entirely. The ambiguity of the film, manifested through the landscape, leaves open a rich uncertainty whereby viewer and character alike must navigate a “moral wilderness” of silence, space, and doubt.49 Limerick reminds us in her essay that “acknowledging the moral complexity of Western history” is not condemning the genre: “by questioning the Westerner’s traditional stance as innocent victim, we do not debunk Western history but enrich it.”50 The film is not one that denigrates the Western; rather, it is one that reveals the layers of complexity associated with the genre. By laying bare the paradox of Western American history, the film offers up a new, “third” portrayal of history—one that embraces possibility, contradiction, and uncertainty as a more intricate, honest, and compelling way to tell a story.