Meek’s Cutoff (2010; dir. Kelly Reichardt) extends and subverts the grand tradition of American film westerns. Its point of view is that of three women traveling west with their families. Although the film is episodic after a fashion, it doesn’t offer a series of climactic encounters of crises that we have seen in such films as Stage Coach—attacks by Indians or bandits, internal squabbles among characters. Instead, the challenges the travelers face are mundane—repairing broken wagon wheels, searching for water, encountering a lone Indian who (apparently) becomes their guide, and, most of all, searching for the right trail—their expedition leader Meek (a self-styled Wild Bill Hickock, an Indian hater, and a teller of lies intended to make the group more reliant on his leadership) led them through a cutoff from the main trail that was supposed to be a shortcut, and instead they became lost. They are lost throughout the entire film.
The setting for this film (mostly filmed in Oregon) is beautiful, though it is always arid. There is no sense of westward-ho in this film, of mighty settlers moving ever westward towards a new land of plenty. The film avoids John Ford-like shots of glorious landscape and instead keeps the wagons in a middle ground. (As Roger Ebert points out, it’s photographed in a 1:1.33 screen ratio, which prevents spectacular widescreen panoramic shots).We get a sense of what they can see, but even more we understand how they feel--tired, bored, increasingly hopeless. There is boredom, monotony, and walking. Virtually no one rides on the wagons, to reduce the load and strain on the animals—oxen and mules—everyone walks, unless sick or injured. The travelers and their clothes are dirty and worn (frankly, not dirty enough, given that if they can’t find water for drinking they certainly can’t find it for bathing or washing). The film is muted, low-key, understated.
The three women are distinct individuals. One, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), has a family, another is Irish and pregnant, a third is prone to hysteria. For the most part, the film doesn’t press the idea that the women are being dragged through the western prairies against their wills, but one can infer. The big decisions are made by the men, on their own, though the women may express their opinions to their husbands—still, the women do not have a say in what’s decided. There’s never any question they will refuse to comply with what’s been decided. Given their plight, of course, lost on the prairie with no water, they have little option.
The cipher in the film is the Indian whom one of the women discovers spying on their wagons. He runs off, but the men pursue him and bring him back. Meek wants him killed, and talks of various indignities that Indians will inflict on their group, especially the women. But the group decides to let him live, hoping he will lead them to water and the trail. The trouble is that they can’t communicate with him, nor he with them. They talk at one another. They seem at moments to understand each other, but one is never sure. Emily makes the greatest effort to talk with the Indian, and he talks back, in his own language, so that he remains to us (we see the film from the settlers’ viewpoint and can’t understand his language either), a mystery as well.
The final scene in this film is astounding, frustrating, unsatisfying, and magnificent.