With wide vistas of the Oregon Desert and sumptuous desolation, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff explores the unspoken battle of the sexes on the prarie trail.
Prairie Oysters by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After the grainy indie minimalism of Old Joy and Wendy And Lucy, Kelly Reichardt returns with a stunning tale of 19th century settlers travelling the Oregon Trail. Meek’s Cutoff is beautiful, with great performances from its three graces Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan as the trailblazer wives, battling for their livelihoods and lives as they cross the Oregon desert in search of riches and in pursuit of the American dream. It’s a time of new frontiers and hard-won mobility, as they rattle westwards in three rickety old wagons. And cooking, mending and sewing, they’re the epitome of fairer sex wholesomeness – obedient, comely chattels of thrift and good sense. But as water rations wane, and their guileful guide Meek leads them ever deeper, their very masculine journey of survival becomes a more feminine question of intuition and trust.
Journeying 2,000 miles across the Oregon prairie was not for the fainthearted, and these bonneted wayfarers are tough. Up to their necks in river or yanking carts down into valleys, these women don’t mind getting their hands dirty. And it’s through their perspective that Kelly Reichardt really focuses her western, the men fading into the background as they rebuild wagons, disappear on sentry missions or deliberate lumpenly round campfires. Gossiping, worrying and sniping, the women are sprightly if generally acquiescent to their menfolk, meekly dominated by male agency and responsibility. But as Emily Tetherow (played by Michelle Williams) shoulders a rifle to defend the Indian who she believes can lead them to water, or upbraids her husband’s gullibility for believing wordslinging gun-for-hire Meek, it’s perhaps this end of an age of meekness which lends the title its true meaning.
As the pioneers’ desperate search for water and their seemingly endless fight for survival becomes a question of trust, Meek’s Cutoff takes on a more philosophical dimension. It’s a dilemma of intuition, which invites the women into the action beyond the daily grind of walking, pitching and striking camp. The ethical scrape between the dubious Meek and the mute Indian as to who can lead them to watery redemption continues throughout the film, the cracked Oregon wasteland becoming a metaphor as moral touchstone Emily takes control, mistrustful of the pathfinder while violently defending the shackled Indian, risking her life to mend his shoe or give him food. She may be trying to buy his trust, or spin a thread of common humanity, but it’s a faith that builds without the garrulous gusto of Meek’s words.
Unable to communicate, the mute Indian seems more trustworthy than the perfidious Meek. And yet this spareness of dialogue, combined with a puritan scantness of emotion and action, leaves Meek’s Cutoff gasping for breath. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful in its calico recreation of the dusty trail, wondrous in its delicate moments and sublime performances (even the minimalist wariness of who to trust seems like a comforting echo from the friendship rekindling drama of Old Joy) and yet Meek’s Cutoff is unremittingly spare. Even the dénouement, as the parched pioneers reach a lonely tree in a not-so-green valley is inconclusive and indecisive. A tree can’t grow without water, sure and yet there’s no gushing spring, no glistening oasis. It’s a wanton lack of resolution, Reichardt’s intention to keep the trustlessness going beyond the final credits, as Meek hangs round like a bad smell and the Indian is left to wander away with his rehomed lenses.
Thematically, it makes sense. The history of tension between the sexes cannot be erased with a well-timed plot device or a feel-good happy ending. And yet, this pussyfoot wavering turns Meek’s Cutoff into even more of a journey than either Old Joy or Wendy And Lucy, and its rambling joys exist in the road travelled rather than the fulfilment of a destination. Perhaps, with its pleasures of the moment, it’s minimalist film at its finest. But for me, as I wander through Meek’s Cutoff’s cinematic wasteland, contemplating who to trust – a mute director or my own desire for braggadocio, I long for an end to the trail, an end to the restless agitation, a good old-fashioned The End.
Meek’s Cutoff is released in the UK on 15th April 2011