I’m interested in the narrative beats and the characters of the Western genre and how the Neo-Western or Postmodern Western play with those narrative beats and characters to keep the genre interesting. I have not read too much about Neo-Westerns, but I’d like to try to analyze Meeks Cutoff as such to see what fits.
The setting fits the Western genre and the cinematography compliments it. The film uses countless long shots of the barren land during the day and then closes the frame in during the scenes taking place at night. Classic Westerns popularized using establishing shots of the terrain in the beginning of the film to characterize the setting. Neo-Westerns like Fargo (the TV show and the film) and films like No Country For Old Men (all Coen brothers related to my knowledge) also used this move to center the landscape. The juxtaposition of far-reaching open land during the day and dark, unknown land at night in Meeks Cutoff conveys a looming sense of existential terror and loneliness in the vast emptiness of the terrain. Similar to conversations we’ve had previously in this class, I would argue that the terrain acts as a character that amps up the tension throughout the film. The central conflict of the film, trying to get to a settlement or get to a place with water, is mediated by the terrain.
The two key characters in the film, Meek and the Native American man, are centered by their ability to access the land and resolve the conflict. Meek is presented as a sort of huckster/grifter/cowboy stereotype who tells tall tales and shouldn’t be trusted, but he was the one hired to guide them through the terrain. Meeks claims to have a spiritual connection to the land, saying that he does not just go through it but he is actually a part of it. Elements like the title and the early conversation about whether he should be hanged lead the audience to doubt his credibility. On the other hand, the Native American man is initially seen as a threatening character that the colonists do not understand. They see him as a liability and even an enemy once they believe he is leaving markers for other Native Americans to come save him from the colonists. In actuality, the Native American man is the one that actually has knowledge of the land and is able to presumably save the colonists. The Native American man’s redemption is represented cinematically in the last shot of the movie which holds on him for a while as he slowly walks into the horizon. This move calls to mind the generic ending to the classic Western where the good cowboy usually wearing a white hat, after having resolved the conflict, rides off into the sunset as we admire him from afar. The film subverts this narrative by centering the Native American man doing this move and earning the rightful praise as the hero instead of Meeks who deflects and says that it was all predetermined and that God is the one that should be praised since their story was all written before by God. Audiences (hopefully) will call Meeks on his bullshit, which can hopefully lead them to read the anti-colonial elements of the film that act against the colonial lean of traditional Westerns that valorize white settlers and cowboys. For example, the characters dehumanize the Native American man by comparing how “civilized” they are, despite the fact that they would not have survived without him. The main technological innovation that they brag about and use are guns. However, guns are mentioned when Meeks brags about shooting Native Americans after chasing them into the river, which, after he realizes that he is bragging about it, tries to deflect it as something that had to be done. The only time guns are shot is when the women come across the Native American man and fire two warning shots to signal the men to come back. However, the cinematography conveys their frailty and the primitiveness of the gun as the shot holds on the entire long time it takes her to fire, load, and fire again. Later, Meeks comments on how the Native American man could have easily killed them, which should’ve signified that he is not hostile, but instead is used to spark more fear.
Similar to Hanzee in Fargo season 2, the Native American man is grossly misunderstood and Othered by the white racist characters that are similar to those in traditional Westerns and is shown through the film to actually be capable through his methods even though they are not accessible to us. This inversion and critique of traditional Western tropes frames the film as a Neo Western with productive postcolonial readings.
I also think another reading of the film could be to argue that the film is not as progressive and operates mainly on white guilt to frame a Native American man in a redemptive way without fully characterizing him. The audience never knows his name and we do not have much access to his character, which maybe could lead to stereotyping / fetishizing. I don’t know.