The films of Kelly Reichardt tend to end with a strange and suspenseful departure. In 2006's Old Joy, Will Oldham's character returns to an uncertain existence after an attempt to reconnect with an old friend, and in 2008's Wendy and Lucy, Michelle Williams pulls away on a train headed north for Alaska. But there has never been more at stake in a Reichardt film than there is in Meek's Cutoff, which follows a small group of husbands and wives, sons and daughters, and their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), as they attempt to drive their wagons across the desolate Oregon plains toward a better life. The group has separated from the main route west, taking a gamble on the guide skills of Meek, and the film begins at a point where the women of the wagon train (Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson) are discovering that their husbands (Will Patton, Neal Huff) are beginning to question whether or not Meek is leading them astray on purpose, and if so, how soon it will be until they try to hang him. The opening scenes show the families steadily crossing a river, the wagons sinking dangerously low, one of the women holding a caged bird above her head as she crosses. Meek's Cutoff not only ends with a significant departure, but begins with one. As the patient and suspenseful burn of their journey proceeds, the crucial nature of their departure from that river looms over every step, and every tip of the canteen.
Meek's Cutoff has been called a "feminist revision" of the western, although this aspect is only allowed to emerge through the film's historical context, which is ultimately what makes the simmering feminist politics of the piece so potent. In the hands of a lesser film maker you can easily see this story being injected with a false sense of modern feminine heroics, which would be to compromise the wider scope and character of the American woman that Reichardt is so adept at drawing. As a feminist piece it recalls Susan Glaspell's short story "A Jury of Her Peers," later turned into the Provincetown Playhouse One-Act "Trifles." In "Trifles," Glaspell uses the genre of the murder mystery to pull us into an examination of gender roles, circa the late teens/early twenties. Like Meek's Cutoff, the opening scenes of "Trifles" guide our natural biases toward the role that the men play in the story, but ultimately plays a clever trick on our perception of the genre. As a Western, Meek's Cutoff allows us to follow those narrative paths toward the conflict as it is established by the men in the narrative, but, as with Glaspell's famous play, the development of the story increasingly ties our point-of view to the women of the story; particularly to the character of Emily Tetherow, played with fierce intent by Michelle Williams. The progression of the wagon train and the narrative gradually shift to reveal the strength of Tetherow's will and compassion, and even though Tetherow may not be the character with the most lines in the film, as Meek tends to spin a rather windy yarn, she definitely emerges as the core of the film's character.
|Bruce Greenwood as Stephen Meek in Meek's Cutoff|
|Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff|
Reichardt's Emily Tetherow is a far cry from the likes of Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar or the cast of Bad Girls. Although there is a sort of showdown between Emily Tetherow and Meek, the scene does not carry the same weight as it would in a conventional Western because the gesture is built up to in a number of other scenes that contrast the masculine tactics of Meek with the feminine tactics of Tetherow. In one moment, after Meek has explained to them that the Native Indian they have taken captive, played with tremendous depth by stuntman Ron Rondeaux, has no sense of humanistic obligation to them, Tehterow mends the shoe of the Native in an attempt to counteract the destructiveness of Meek's worldview. The real drama of the film lies in this play of feminine and masculine gestures (again, recalling the central difference of masculine/feminine perspective in "Trifles"). In the "showdown" sequence, which has specifically to do with the treatment of the Native (and which features an image used to market the film--Williams holding a rifle cocked to fire), we aren't left with the same feeling of easy triumph that would characterize this same type of scene in any other genre picture, but rather a more complicated sense of what Tetherow is sacrificing by embracing the masculine gesture of destruction that Meek defined for her earlier in the film: Men = Destruction, Women = Chaos.
Among the plethora of striking images in Meek's Cutoff is that of a tree the wagon train happens upon that is full and leafy at the bottom, and strafed and dry among it's highest limbs. The image of that tree seems to hold the stark trajectory of their journey, and serves as a prime example of the subtlety of Reichardt's symbolism. We see the same subtlety in Reichardt's mis-en-scene, which is some of the most cautious and precise among the new generation of film makers. Carefully positioning the viewer in a way that allows new access to some very well-trodden narrative territory, she sets her subjects against each other and the simultaneously captivating and chilling landscape of the Oregon trail. The film does not shy away from the darkness of the journey, in many scenes evoking the term "Western Noir." The pitch black night of Meek's Cutoff is yet another character of the film, at times allowing the only safe place for the Tetherows to speak openly as the stakes of their plight become progressively dire.
The characters are approached in a way that embraces their darkness and prejudice, as well. Although the tendency may be to read Tetherow as a feminist "hero," Reichardt reminds us that an ideal of feminism is something that has shifted over time, and will continue to, as we hear Tetherow remark near the beginning of the film, as she builds the camp for the night, that the men have them doing "nigger's work" again. The language in Meek's Cutoff is as tense, stark, and unforgiving as the desert plains they travel. The opening of the film is essentially wordless, until we see the character of Thomas Gately, played by Paul Dano, carve the word "LOST" into the side of a tree. Later, as Rondeaux's Indian speaks out to the landscape, intentionally and effectively un-subtitled, we are asked to engage in a kind of listening that goes beyond language. Whether or not Tetherow is right in her interpretations of what he is speaking we'll never know, but, once again, we are left with Tehterow's compassionate intellect in contrast to the blind distrust of Meek.
Perhaps Reichardt wants to lead us to the territory of political allegory with Meek's Cutoff, giving us Meek, with his overt performance of masculinity, as a representation of George W. Bush leading everyone dangerously off course, leaving Emily Tetherow with the question of whether he is evil, or just stupid? Certainly, there is an abiding Christian faith in his followers that we are reminded of from time to time, as well as an overriding fear of the Native "other."
|Tehterow takes aim at Meeks in Meek's Cutoff|
|Moving west in Meek's Cutoff|
|Rod Rondeaux in Meek's Cutoff|
|Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff|
In the final images, we see Tetherow's desperate countenance framed by the branches of a tree; a sort of natural iris shot. Meek utters the lines: "This was written long before we got here. I'm at your command." We are reminded in that line that the triumph of Emily Tetherow is wrapped in a historical narrative that is not her own, as the reverse shot shows us the open framing of the Indian walking away from her. Reichardt shows us that our future now, as it was then, is uncertain, and that the way in which we negotiate our gender roles in every instance of our lives leads a slow, difficult revolution.