Note: This review is being re-posted with additional thoughts as part of the top 50 westerns countdown at Wonders in the Dark placing at #44.
Tuck what is called Meek's Cutoff...a bad cutoff for all that tuck it. ...I will just say, pen and tong will both fall short when they grow to tell of the suffering the company went through.
-Samuel Parker, 1845
As Meek’s Cutoff opens, we see water. Cool, rushing water, providing a cleansing and peaceful sound. We see a group of pioneers trying to ford the river, up to the top of their wagon wheels in water. Up to their shoulders in water as they wade across, they linger nearby and fill up their buckets. They are lost, but at least they have water. Question is, when will they find more once they move on? Meek’s Cutoff is based on a true story that was documented in 1845 as a group of pioneers decided to hire Stephen Meek, a guide and trapper to lead them on a shortcut through central Oregon, to lead them to the Willamette Valley. He ended up getting them lost, as they wandered around the south-central deserts of Oregon as their water supply and patience wore out. Reichardt’s brilliant western captures the hardships of the wagon train existence with a chilling reality overshadowing even the beautiful images that fill the screen. In fact the dichotomy between the desperation of the pioneers and the beauty of the desert landscape is one of the film’s great tensions. The other great tension, is the battle of the sexes, as Reichardt examines the roles of women and men, subverting western traditions and elevating feminist themes to the fore while transcending any sense of gender based posturing by making her film as artfully and classically crafted as any western in recent memory.
Michelle Williams plays Emily Tetherow, one of these pioneers, who has a husband named Solomon (Will Patton). There are two other couples with them, The Gatelys and The Whites, each with their own wagon. Emily Tetherow is a fascinating character to watch. Her stern and dirtied face is able to appear just tough enough to compete with Stephen Meek, whom it’s clear she derides and blames for their plight, as she should. It’s also clear she holds some blame for the men in the troupe, as the women are never included in the discussions on what should be done with Meek and what they should do next. At one point in the film, the troupe captures a Native American and decides he might be the one to lead them to water. Emily does some kind things for him: feeding him, mending his moccasin, protecting his life in one instance. Yet it’s for realistic reasons she does this: She wants something in return from him and wants him to pay her back in return for her kindness. She also spends time communicating with the other women, Millie (Zoe Kazan), and Glory (Shirley Henderson) as they converse and commiserate on what to do next and when to speak up against Meek.
Now there are exceptions of course, but women have generally been mostly outsiders in the history of western cinema, and it is often a frustration of mine that women weren’t given meatier roles. Often relegated to stereotypical roles as school marms, prairie wives, or prostitutes, finding varied roles for women is hard to come by in most of the widely recognized classics of the genre. There are exceptions of course. A two-reeler from 1920 titled A Woman’s Vengeance bucks the trend with the portrayal of a female gunfighter. Additionally a two reeler by Griffith in 1914 titled The Battle of Elderbush Gulch follows the exploits of a woman and some young children. But there are also feminist stepping stone type films that began to appear in the 1950’s, like Wellman’s Westward the Women (1951), an inspiring film involving a wagon train filled with women. It doesn’t take feminism to the next level though, because the wagon train is still led by a man played by Robert Wagner. This motif arises again in The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957), starring Audie Murphy, which also portrays a group of women led by an “infallible” male leader. This is something that Reichardt may have picked up on, as she subverts this tradition in Meek’s Cutoff by portraying the male leader as an ineffective, irresponsible dolt. Other feminist westerns include Nicholas Ray’s gender-bending Johnny Guitar (1954), Jane Fonda in the comedy western Cat Ballou (1965), and Richard Pearce’s realist film Heartland (1979). But, if we’re talking about westerns directed by women though, the list is very short. We have Alice Guy-Blanche’s Algie the Miner (1912), Ruth Baldwin’s ’49-’17 (1917), Nell Shipman’s Something New (1920), Lina Wertmuller with at least co-credit in 1968’s Italian film Il mio corpo per un poker, and Maggie Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo (1993). Reichardt’s film isn’t the first truly feminist western, but it’s certainly one of the best if not THE best of its kind. Unlike the other films I mention, Reichardt really wants the visuals to recall classics like Ford’s Wagon Master in the visual scope, yet she subverts our traditional understanding of masculine heroism, undermining it through portraying a female character who draws a gun faster than her husband does, and through the bumbling lack of leadership from all of the males in the wagon train. But it’s not like Reichardt chooses to reverse gender roles here, as was often the traditional form of portraying feminism in other films. On the contrary, Emily, Millie and Glory are still very much women in the traditional roles of pioneer days, sewing, cooking and tending to familial needs. It is to Reichardt’s credit that she displays the strength of the women persevering through the hardships they encounter and allowing them to be strongly feminine in ways that are realistic, and necessary to the plot.
Much has been made of the fact that Reichardt chose to film in standard aspect ratio, rather than widescreen. What I think the ratio provides is more realism, which is essential to the film’s feel. Widescreen photography lends to the potential capacity for creating larger compositions, and the wider the screen, the more elaborate the compositions can be. Compositions do not feel realist in principle, they can feel manipulative, as if the hand of the director or cinematographer can be felt as he/she placed everything just so. Having a smaller field of vision limits the potential for embellished compositions and I think that’s why Reichardt chose it. You will almost never see the groups of men and women framed together. They are nearly always framed separately, because in one sense, Reichardt wants it that way, but also the camera doesn’t allow them to be framed together. With the men and women often separated, it highlights how women were not included in these types of conversations that men had. As viewers, we’re often watching the film from the women’s point of view as we watch the men talking from a distance. But the film has much more going for it than just gender-based topics. Meek’s Cutoff works so well because it’s a deep meditation on quiet, mounting desperation. This film contains none of the tropes that cinema uses to trump up desolation, particularly in westerns. There are no gunfights, fisticuffs, or even loud verbal spars between people. Faces of the women and men appear tired and fearful as they begin to realize that death may soon be around the corner. Mostly the film lingers on the mounting escalation of dread among the few attempts at perseverance and hope. As things look bleaker and no water is found, hope begins to fade and desperation comes more to the fore. Reichardt forces you to stay in that moment with the wagon train, providing no exposition or conclusion, confronting the viewer with the eternal consequences of choice.