At first glance, Meek’s Cutoff may seem like a traditional western, but Kelly Reichard’s third and most ambitious film is far from that.
Loosely based off the historical events of a band of settlers making their way across the Oregon High Desert in 1845, the film boasts a hauntingly minimalist aesthetic, strikingly beautiful cinematography, and some of the year’s most raw performances, led by the ever-versatile Michelle Williams.
The film follows the small band of settlers as they are led through the baron Oregon desert by Stephen Meek (played by a nearly unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood), a roughneck hired to lead them through the Cascade Mountains.
What is supposed to be a two-week journey has now stretched into five because of Meek’s “claim” to know a shortcut through the rough terrain. Supplies are low, and tensions are high as the three families become frustrated with Meek’s leadership.
With Meek’s Cutoff, Reichard has stripped all of the trademark elements of a classic western; no epic gun fights, no heroically-macho ‘lone ranger’ characters, the romance is gone, as well as the subtle humor and wit found in traditional Westerns by the likes of John Ford and Sergio Leone. Instead, with Reichard’s revisionist western, the masculinity is eschewed, the characters are ambiguous, and the tone is almost asexual; a stark contrast to what is traditionally expected within the genre.
Additionally Reichard uses her trademark minimalist style to aptly capture the sense of desperation and frustration conveyed within the tone of the film. What we are left with is a realistic, honest portrait of the trials and tribulations of surviving in the Great American Frontier.
As the group treks on, weary of Meek’s assertions as to their current whereabouts, they catch a lone Native American man spying on them. They capture him, believing that he will be able lead them to a water source, despite the substantial language barrier. With each passing day they have the captured Native American in tow, their situation becomes more grave; desperation for water and food grows rapidly, and the imminent threat of a Native American invasion causes much consternation for the group.
Perhaps the most effective and innovative aspect of Reichard’s film is the subversive feminist subtext within the narrative of the film. Although her sprawling use of long takes, medium and long shots seems to present a subjective framework for the narrative, much of the focus is on the women of the film.
The film features three women- the shrill and paranoid newlywed Millie Gately (Zoe Kazan), Glory White (Shirley Henderson), the mother of a young boy and pregnant with her second child, and the young, quiet and stern Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), who soon becomes the film’s heroine.
Early in the film, Reichard effectively captures the inequality and patriarchy of the old west as several scenes show the three women eagerly trying to overhear the men discussing their next move. The scenes pertinently captures the overt patriarchy associated with the old west.
As the chosen leader, Meek has left the group astray with his poor decisions. As the other men of the wagon train (played by Paul Dano, Will Patton, and Neal Huff), struggle to come to an agreement as to the group’s next move, Reichardt slowly, but steadily establishes Michelle William’s character as the unlikely patriarchal figure in such a way that overtly de-masculinizes Meek and the rest of the men.
The film ends abruptly and without resolution as William’s character assumes leadership over the group. Although the continued survival of the group under Williams’ leadership remains unresolved, the film’s rejection of generic expectations and it’s dissident feminist perspective qualifies it as an extremely effective revisionist western, a subtly disquieting and haunting portrait of life in the old west, and one the year’s best films thus far.