Questions about place and the interpretation of MEEK’S CUTOFF

It’s been a few weeks since we saw Meek’s Cutoff, but one question I keep thinking about is the difference that place, or the context for viewing, might affect how people read the film.

I assume that most people who go to see Meek’s will have some vague notion of “Oregon” and “the Oregon Trail”, or at least “pioneers”, but I think it’s also safe to assume that the high desert landscape and region in which the characters get lost and disoriented will not be familiar to many (it’s interesting to me that even the official summary of the film has only a general description of where it takes place, referring to the setting as “high plain desert”, an oddly imprecise turn of phrase). I also assume that many viewers will have, at most, a fuzzy sense of “the Willamette Valley”, the “Eden” towards which the families are all heading.

I live in the Willamette Valley, and for most of my life I have lived here and in Portland. I saw Meek’s at Salem Cinema right in the middle of the Valley. I see the green and fertile lands promised by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) weekly along 99W and the country roads between Monmouth and Corvallis. I learned Oregon history as a kid, and as an adult I’ve taught courses on Western, Pacific Northwest and Oregon geography. I have a specific frame of reference for understanding where and why the Tetherows, the Gatelys, and the Whites are taking the risks they are in traversing the desert to get over the Cascades. Most importantly, I have a frame for reference for the myths that come from Meek’s mouth when assuring Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) that their fortune lies just over the mountains.

Meek’s promises of easy and instant wealth are exaggerations and propaganda, but I also know that the landscape he references encourages such mythologizing, makes it persuasive. Settlers like the families in the film would have seen a lush, green lowland seemingly made by God for farming (in fact, it was the Native American use of fire that shaped the landscape in that way, but most white Americans did not comprehend that. David Douglas, for example, was likely typical in seeing Native burning as a sign of savagery on the part of indigenous people). You can still get that impression today, due in part to Oregon’s land use laws which are used to control urban and suburban growth.

(Without digressing into a theoretical discussion of landscape, one way to read the fact that the state’s land use system remains largely unique in the U.S. is as another instance where the land has played a role in how it gets seen. The same qualities that made white settlers in the 19th century see an agricultural Eden worked in the 20th century to persuade people to enact barriers to urban sprawl).

It is easy to see Meek as nothing more than a charlatan, putting on a performance for the Tetherows et al. And no doubt he is, but I wonder how much more complex he seems as a character if you have a specific knowledge of western Oregon and an understanding of the plausibilities in his mythopoetic utterances, and whether that bolsters your impression of other moments of truth from him. For example, I think that there is truth in his rueful account of slaughtering Native Americans. I can see Meek as someone who has just enough real knowledge, even if only about the rhetoric of the Westward journey or the landscape in general, to persuade level-headed people like Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams and Will Patton) that he has a shortcut over the mountains. But maybe viewers without a more detailed frame of reference for the history and geography of the film are more likely to see him as pure con artist, or to think that the families are entirely deluded about what they will find at the end of the Oregon Trail.

The ending of Meek’s Cutoff is notable for its abruptness and deliberate ambiguity. There are a number of ways to read the film’s final shots. A colleague of mine from the history department, who teaches and researches on the Pacific Northwest and American West, and who has a familiarity with the locations of the film, is able to give a compelling reading to aspects of the ending that would be difficult to make without his particular knowledge of place. Of course, maybe Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymond made the film without meaning for audiences to specifically locate the closing shots, but they did make the film with a pronounced open-endedness, one that invites the multiple interpretations.

In a broader sense, I left the theater thinking about how connected I felt to the characters, from knowing, for example, how oppressive northeastern Oregon can seem even when in a car on the freeway and only a matter of hours from home in the Willamette Valley. Or feeling a kind of kinship with the families for having chosen to live in exactly the place that they are risking life and limb to reach. Oregon is not one of those places, like Los Angeles or Paris or New York, that moviegoers, globally, have some concept of. Meek’s Cutoff reads like a deeply place-based text, but maybe that very assumption is driven by my own experiences. In either case, I am curious as to how people without my connections understand the film, its locations, and characters.