By Phil Guy
The likes of There Will Be Blood (2007), True Grit (2011) and The Assassination of Jesse James (2007) have already secured their places among the greats of the Western resurgence, and it is with Meek’s Cutoff that director Kelly Reichardt makes her play to stand in their company.
Rather than abide by the hallmarks of traditional Westerns Meek’s Cutoff replaces outlaws, sheriffs and gunplay with loneliness, atmosphere and a tale of altogether more ordinary folk. It follows the journey undertaken by three families and their guide, Stephen Meek [Bruce Greenwood], as they attempt to cross the Oregon Trail into fairer pastures.
With no water source in sight, and with growing doubts about their guide, a quiet mistrust and tension gathers between the travellers. The capture of a native Indian prompts further division as the group discusses his fate – whether to use his knowledge of the desert in order to find a water source or to simply eliminate his potential threat. This acts as the film’s primary conflict, pitting Meek’s deluded ‘stay the course’ mentality and knee-jerk racism against Emily Tetherow’s [Michelle Williams] stoic discontent and more liberal demeanour towards their prisoner.
In keeping with the film’s rethinking of the traditional Western Reichardt chooses to focus on the women of the group. Emily Tetherow acts as the resilient leader but she remains downtrodden as a female on the American frontier. It is the men who make the vital decisions and the wives must stand aside and watch as their fates are arranged without their input or consent. It’s an interesting reflection on the suppression of women in such times and one that seems relatively unexplored in the genre. Reichardt makes good use of the idea and even films in a box-like screen ratio to simulate the restricted vision of a traditional prairie bonnet.
To colour the plot’s brooding and understated manner Reichardt uses the sparse landscape of the Oregon desert. She uses the cracked, scorched earth to construct her ambience and the environment becomes a character of both beauty and terror. Its endless horizons and unchanging rock formations give the film a distinctly surreal quality; a kind of trance-like atmosphere that effectively conveys the achingly slow passing of time and the immeasurable boredom that the characters face in their journey across the plains.
In tandem with that atmosphere the Biblical references at work in the dialogue seem to reflect the idea of purgatory. The families journey in the hope of finding a ‘second Eden’, where their completed journey will become ‘just a bad dream’. Despite the hope that they voice to each other, however, their awareness of their dire reality is palpable and becomes ever more prominent. For this the cast must be credited as a whole as each member plays their part with a subtle but traceable anguish.
With its haunting images of loneliness and quiet despair– a young wife chasing her bonnet in the wind across an endless landscape, a man telling empty stories of bravery and heroism to a young boy – Meek’s Cutoff is a resounding success. Reichardt has captured a very different side of the old American frontier that we rarely see in cinema: the inescapable struggles of ordinary people born into that desolate environment and the measures they must take in order to make ends meet in such a place.