My mental imagery of the American West of the 19th Century is more or less shaped by American movies, specifically the westerns made by John Ford. I can see in my mind John Wayne leading a wagon train across the prairies, Winchester in hand, while Max Steiner’s score thunders on the soundtrack. Along the way they fight Indians and rustlers and, if there’s time, maybe the leading man will have a romance with Maureen O’Sullivan or Barbara Stanwyck. Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff is none of those things. It is a cold, spare western that is probably about as close to real-life as a wagon train might have been 166 years ago.
The movie takes place in 1845, and follows a group of settlers along the Oregon Trail. The families include Soloman and Emily Tetherow (Will Patton and Michelle Williams); Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan); William and Glory White and their son Jimmy (Neal Huff, Shirley Henderson and Tommy Nelson). They have also brought along a guide, Steven Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a boastful mountain man who is suppose to be an expert who can lead them over the Cascade Mountains. He promised them that he knows a shortcut, but has turned a two week trip into five and the men in the party are starting to lose confidence. Not only are they losing confidence, but their food and their water is starting to run short as well.
Day after day, they trudge forward across the same barren landscape. They have no idea which direction they are headed. They have no idea if they are headed for water or into the heart of Indian country. All they know is that they seem to be lost and at the mercy of a man who doesn’t know where he’s going. Meek promises that it won’t be long now, but it is Emily that suspects that he is simply lost and just privately hoping for a lucky break.
What makes Meek’s Cutoff so unusual is that it has the vantage point of the women in the party. The men converge and commune about their plans, but it is only heard at a distance as the women strain to hear. Seated away from the men, in their bonnets, their physical vision is limited. They are not to interfere with the menfolk but it is clear, at least in Emily’s case, that they understand more than they are given credit for. Certainly Meek doesn’t understand her, we can see this in a bit of dialogue in which he bodly states that man are the cosmic means of destruction but women are the means of chaos.
Emily is the film’s focal point. We get the feeling that she could handle herself alone in this terrain. She can not only cook and sew but she’s also handy with a rifle. Something in her eyes suggests that she knows more than she is allowed to say. In the film’s second half, the men capture a Native American man (played by stuntman Rod Rondeaux) that they hope can lead them to water. He isn’t your standard “movie Indian”, all smooth skin and pidgin English. He’s a ragged man, alone on the prairie who speaks no English and is given little respect by this band of travellers who know nothing about him or his people.
The men in the party think he’s a savage but Emily believes something different. She believes that treating this man like trash will get them nowhere. He has, after all, been through enough. There’s a touching moment when she sews a hole in one of his shoes and quietly admits to Millie that “He needs to own something”. The last shot of the movie is more profound and haunting then we initially realize.
What comes of Meek’s Cutoff isn’t really the story that’s being told, it is about the people telling it. There are long silences when we know what is happening and others that are left to us to decide. This is a film about paranoia and fear in a harsh landscape. It is all about mood and atmosphere and tension. It is about a lot of things that aren’t spoken out loud.