At the opening of Kelly Reichardt’s claustrophobic period drama, Meek’s Cutoff, a group of seven settlers and their guide ford an Oregon river through chest-high water. The cerulean watercourse cuts a strange and striking figure against the otherwise stark desert landscape. The deliberate movements of the settlers, crossing with what little they can carry only to bring the lightened wagons over separately, offers a sense of the often painfully slow travels of early westward emigrants. They also point forward to Reichardt’s languid pacing, much of a piece with her earlier films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. The crossing sequence plays without dialogue, concluding with one of the men carving a word into a nearby piece of driftwood—LOST.
The guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), had promised to show the settlers a shortcut west from Boise to the Willamette Valley. However, as the trip lingered on day after day, the settlers began to wonder whether Mr. Meek hadn’t promised more than he could deliver. Reichardt’s film chronicles the group’s growing mistrust of their leader, as well as the effects that the lack of water leaves on the party. When the group captures an Indian, the man becomes at once a lightning rod for fear and a pillar of hope.
The film’s interests are many. Reichardt’s decision to film in the aspect ratio of yesteryear—1.85.1—rather than in the typical widescreen format, gives the film a tight, enclosed feel. The settlers, though they can look for miles in any direction, have been boxed in by their circumstances. Reichardt also focuses her camera on the people and their actions, refraining from the epic landscape shots that litter Westerns. This choice suits her purpose well. It offers the opportunity to highlight the materiality of the world around these characters. These are people of the land. They scrub dishes, plane new axles, and walk endless miles on the unforgiving ground.
Reichardt’s film also subverts our expectations with its emphasis on the women of the party—especially Mrs. Tetherow (Michelle Williams). The camera often finds its way to the women. They walk alongside the wagons. They rise first in the morning to prepare the fire. They do all the cooking and cleaning. They gather firewood and wash clothes. And yet, when the time comes for the group to have an important conversation, the men leave the women out of it. It’s especially in these moments, as Reichardt’s camera lingers on women without a say in their destiny, that the film engenders our compassion for their situation.
No doubt many will read the film as a parable on today’s America. While this is by no means required, its modernist score certainly gives a hint in this direction. However, this kind of reading is only possible because the film remains firmly rooted in the materiality of its milieu. In this, Meek’s Cutoff takes on a universal tone. And as the group struggles with what to do and who to trust, Reichardt concludes the film on a narratively ambiguous shot. For those who demand narrative closure, this will no doubt frustrate their expectations. But the final shot’s brilliance is thematic rather than narrative, a humanist statement on our fundamental need for one another if we are to have any hope in this world.