Directed by Kelly Reichardt about a group of wagon train trekkers travelling across Oregon in 1845. Under a dozen men women and children travel in three covered wagons led by supposed explorer Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). They have split off from a larger wagon train, assured by Meek that he will show them a short cut to their promised land. However, it dawns on them that Meek is all mouth and no competence. They capture a Paiute who seems to know the land and they increasingly put their trust in him, so Meek tries to murder the Paiute who is defended by Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams). Meek loses face and has to accept the guidance of the Paiute.
This is an austere and, I suppose, a more realistic look at the early immigrant takeover of the American west. To call it ‘wilderness’ is of course absurd, since Native Americans had lived there for thousands of years, but such arrogance would suit the likes of Meek. He is the fib teller who started the myths of the west. He boasts about unprovable accomplishments and never misses an opportunity, of course, to slander Native Americans. His stance is that of the unchallenged bully, his mind cannot function on accidents and coincidences, everything is a matter for adversarial self assertion. It is easy for him to persuade the others not to take this desert Oregon country at face value, naturally since he’s in control it furnishes his self aggrandisement. He thinks he’s capable and tough yet he rides on a horse whereas most of the others have to walk. He wears show off Davy Crockett-style buckskins, yet the woman are dressed in plain ordinary clothes. In their bucket bonnets and plain dresses, the men in their sober hats, they look like Victorian religious fanatics in some Biblical pilgrimage and doubtless some of these sort of immigrants were precisely that: the Mormons settled in Utah at this time. Meek is a precursor of Buffalo Bill and Custer and is essentially a clown. The woman especially see through him, indeed it was usually the women who ensured the survival of these wagon trains, a recent book narrates their competence and heroism. Emily Tetherow faces down Meek who wants to kill the captured Paiute, he used the captive as a scapegoat for his own failings, relying on the racism of the immigrants. Tetherow helps the Paiute, stitching his shoe and speaking up for him. For all we know, Emily may share the usual racist assumptions but in the bleak and waterless land, the Paiute might be their only hope.
There are some superb details about wagon trek life: the bible reading, the bizarre uselessness of ordinary domestic items like chairs in the middle of a desert, the Paiute chalking pictures on a rock (needless to say, Meek interprets this in a paranoid way), the lethargy of the long hours of walking. There is a scene where the wagons must be let down an incline, this is not dramatically steep but it is rocky and one of the wagons gets smashed. The wagons look like wheeled coffins topped by billowing shrouds and they creak along in the desolation, there is little relief from this sound. There are no dramatic changes of weather, no sandstorms, no snow, just the amazing desert tones of the landscape with it’s shades of ochre, golds and chiaroscuro. When we see a crag, it’s so unexpected that it becomes quite stunning even though it’s not conventionally dramatic. While the immigrants travel over this, we think of them engaged in some sort of spiritual journey, as if the emptiness of the terrain is a kind of monastic test. They are tested, they have to have faith in others, they have nothing to cling to and you feel they are too weary for retribution. The Paiute seems innocent, captured for being different and to serve Meek’s purposes. Meek is found out and becomes repentant so they have learned about themselves. These people are not especially heroic or extraordinary, they want a short cut to their promised paradise and they are paying for their self centred credulity. One of the men suddenly collapses and is put in the wagon, he is the victim of some disease which killed far more people in the ‘frontier’ west than anything else.
There is no relief from this land, they are lost in it at the end as they become increasingly dirty and thirsty, possibly there’s a horror story at the end of it. The sounds of this film are generally of people talking at a distance, we catch snatches of conversation as the separateness of the sexes shows a need to preserve Victorian values. Whatever the men are discussing, the women have their own ideas. Conversations at night sound poetic and cryptic around the ornate lamps. There is nothing out there except each mind reflected back on itself. The lack of traditional film music shows how easily mainstream films (westerns as well as other genres) use the cop out of music to manipulate us away from more difficult issues. An absorbing film about the so-called pioneers of the west.
Seen at Chapter, Cardiff.