July Theme Month

Quiet Observance of Empty Myths in Meek’s Cutoff

In a time when basic survival was of paramount concern, men held all voting power, and the colonialist mantra “manifest destiny” ingrained ideas of western superiority into settlers, Meek’s Cutoff depicts life as uncomfortable and tragic. The loosely structured revisionist Western follows several families seeking riches while attempting to navigate the barren hills of Oregon in 1845. As Kelly Reichardt’s fourth feature, following her acclaimed films Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy, Meek’s Cutoff sees the auteur finding surer footing with higher production values and a more widely renowned cast. It also marks Reichardt’s second collaboration of several with Montana native Michelle Williams, who stars as Emily. Despite higher funding (a $2 million budget up from $300k for Wendy and Lucy), certain arthouse trademarks remain, like the snug 4:3 frame ratio and sparse use of dialogue. Reichardt’s style has been placed by some within the slow cinema movement, and Meeks Cutoff is no different. A slow burn in the most restrained sense, the narrative begins prior to the start and concludes sometime after the credits roll. Viewers might find themselves bored watching this film, and in turn gain a stronger understanding of the character’s suffering and aimlessness, watching their journey progress sluggishly or become halted altogether. 

The acting and dialogue mirror the vacant setting. Williams and her peers all deliver solemn and convincing performances; some particular standouts are Bruce Greenwood as the party’s disagreeable, egotistic guide Stephen Meek, and Rod Rondeaux as the tragic native American whom the party lashes out at on account of their dissatisfaction. From the start, tensions between the pioneers ride high, as their soft murmurs speak of Meek’s reputation and the disdain and hatred they feel toward him. Reichardt does not present a character study, so much as an exploration of power dynamics in a hellish microcosm of a regressive, bygone society. Each character is more of a representation of a given identity, as the film delves into stereotypes of each group. The main clashes come between the men and women, the settlers and a native man, and above all, the human and natural environment. 

In the tradition of many westerns, Meek’s Cutoff centers around the myth of the American West. Seen as a lawless place, not yet civilized by European-descendent pioneers, tales of legendary heroes, hostile natives, and untold riches are carried between travelers passing through. The desolate and challenging terrain causes otherwise minute disagreements to brew in the character’s hearts and results in heightened emotional responses. Reichardt offers a feminine perspective on this central myth that keenly pulls back the layers which typically form powerful stories of machismo. The depiction stays unsettlingly grounded throughout, rather than turning a presentist eye to the past or rewriting history for style like in the recent The Harder They Fall. In this realism, the film finds an almost religious feeling in the spirit of the west which the film finds. The emptiness appears so full of potential and natural beauty but is populated only by suffering, loneliness, and distrust. The characters’ bitterness reveals their underlying sins of greed, and vanity, pointing to inherent human evil, in the absence of sweeping drama and theatrics. 

The central narrative quandary faced by the characters in Meek’s Cutoff is simply that they are lost and afraid. Reichardt plays heavily into the implication beneath many films in the genre that the west reveals the true nature of man. Ethical dilemmas arise when characters’ sense of vanity and self-preservation exceed those of the group, fracturing their morale and unity, which is low from the start. Once their caravan encounters an unnamed native man, who speaks no English, their paranoia and ethical confusion spiral beyond their grasp. The native man encapsulates all their distress and anger, allowing him to be their perfect scapegoat, as they treat him inhumanly while holding him hostage. He becomes a sort of human bargaining chip, not initially valued as a living being. Even decent acts towards him arise from ulterior motives and in-group feuds; the actors inhabit and depict this historical way of thinking with chilling conviction. 

The tone overall is both lyrical and realistic. Initially, the Oregon hills appear beautiful as the film unfolds quietly to start, though they turn increasingly mundane as it becomes clearer that the desert is a purgatory for the travelers. Driven by their sinful ways of anger, greed, and vanity, the party turns on each other, yet manages to coexist by the end. The final scenes are subtle to a degree that would dissatisfy some audiences, but like the emotions of the film, they imply far beneath the surface that the seed for change has been planted. Westerns play into perceptions of America’s past, as a wondrous cinematic mode of explaining how modernity was shaped by bold figures. Meek’s Cutoff sees through the grandeur of this fantastical history through the lens of those sidelined by its telling. When the dust settles, the virtues of kindness and decency triumph, offering hope for the future even when life is hell.

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