Review: Meek's Cutoff (2010)
Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff positions humans as inferior to the vast landscapes that they find themselves inhabiting when a group of settlers struggle to source food and water as they travel across the Oregon desert.
Conventionally, westerns feature action, and typically this means show downs, saloon bar scraps, train robberies, brawls, bank heists and calvary charges as cowboys and Indians go to war. As a vehicle to promote ideal masculinity and the fight for civilisation in the face of so-called savagery, many westerns from the early 20th century relied on an archetypal hero cowboy who expertly restores law and order in a showy fashion.
Reichardt and screenplay writer Jonathan Raymond bypass all of that and instead of relying on traditional narrative beats, use the wilderness and great expanse of the Oregon Trail to create conflict and tension among the group of people making their way west. Three pioneer families put their trust in Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to lead them over the Cascade Mountains, but as more time passes, exhaustion sets in and their water supply runs out, their faith in the man supposedly best placed for the job erodes. “We're not lost. We're just findin' our way,” says Meek. As far as the audience can see, this simply isn't true: they are all blindly walking toward death with no signs of other civilisation in sight.
Though the film moves away from narrative conventions and a traditional source of conflict, the symbolic codes are crafted to a tee with western iconography used in abundance both visually and audibly. In the first few minutes, there is no mistaking the setting, with rolling hills, water pails, cracked terrain, wagons, and buffalo crossing a stream. Props and costumes all help in establishing a hostile environment and in placing the time period, with the men in frayed leather and stetsons, while the women wear cotton, floor-length dresses and accessorise with bonnets. However, the choice of dress for the wives (portrayed by Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan) does buck the trend with the inclusion of slightly more colour.
The naturalistic soundscape further contributes to the setting, and for the first seven minutes of the film only the sound of rushing water travelling downstream, crickets, the crunch of stones underfoot and swarming flies can be heard.
The partial withdrawal of the senses is something that is experimented with throughout. When each day draws to a close and the families, along with their frontier guide, are plunged into darkness, so are the viewers. Sometimes there is a glimmer of candlelight but you need to work hard to listen to the conversations without the help of lip reading. There are some long scenes in almost pitch black and although some may find this reliance on the audience to imagine the scene tiring, it effectively places you in a time period without any artificial light aids, and therefore into complete disarray. It's a clever and bold reminder of just how isolating the plains of America can be.
A pivotal point occurs when the settlers capture a Native American. This acts as an opportunity for Meek to assert some of that aforementioned dominance expected of him in order to feed the binary oppositions westerns are known for, but he fails and resultantly those tropes are deemed irrelevant. The supposedly wise male who would lead the settlers to safety is proven no more courageous than the women and man they are keeping captive. The very people who would have been portrayed as inferior are in fact the characters who come through for the group, speak the most sense and keep up morale in the face of adversity.
Meek begins boastful about his knowledge and physicality ("It’s like my feet have gloves”) but the further along the unmarked path they go and the more he says, the more unreliable he turns out to be. Greenwood is brilliantly cast in this role: he nails the accent and the way that he almost talks in cursive only adds to the growing sense of disorder that bubbles with each passing day. He has some questionable (and entirely non-sensical) views on gender, stating that: “Women are created on the principle of chaos... Men are created on the principle of destruction." The irony being that the only thing he is destroying, is the families' gradual confidence in him to lead them.
The paradox of being in a wide open space but feeling trapped because you have no idea how to get out of it is perfectly captured by the use of the Academy ratio. Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt capture the claustrophobia of not only living with the unknown within an unimaginable expanse of land, but the confines of wagons and bonnets is framed within the squared view so that the female perspective is dominant. There is a certain horror to not being able to see beyond the immediate path in front of you, not to mention a loneliness.
The choice to not make the most of the panoramic views of the American frontier emphasises the constant sense of jeopardy facing the characters - will they or won't they survive? The looming peril is only partially alleviated when Emily Tetherow begins communicating with the Native man. Rather than romanticising the Old West, Reichardt uses Meek's Cutoff to criticise the American values used to dominate the genre and instead explores justice of a different kind. The Western hero would usually stand and face danger alone, but here Emily Tetherow realises that she needs to work with 'the enemy' in order to survive. It's a story that taps into tolerance and mutual support rather than division and deep rooted conflict.
For decades now, Westerns have represented idealism. In Meek's Cutoff, there is no guarantee of this for the families and although the journey the cast go on is tough - and some may say drawn out - the lack of resolution and ambiguous ending at least provides an opportunity of thought to the audience instead of a clear cut triumph and falsified promise of 'freedom'.
Verdict: Reichardt takes on the Western with finesse and patience. The bounds of 1845 civilisation go out the window when the hostile desert turns out to be more of a conquest than the captive enemy.
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡
Watch the trailer for Meek's Cutoff here: