Westward the women
Continuing our current thread of wagon-train Westerns, today we’ll look at a recent contribution to the sub-genre, the 2010 feature Meek’s Cutoff.
Though it is and it isn’t a Western. It’s a Western in the sense that it’s a classic theme – frontier settlers facing hardships on the journey to the promised land – and, as AO Scott said in The New York Times, it’s a film in which “the durable mythology of the West — in the American imagination it’s always where you run to, where you start over, where you lose yourself — comes up against some flinty realities.” There are (rather primitive) firearms, horses and Indians (or one Indian anyway), so you think it’s a Western.
But then again it isn’t. It’s a long (1 hour 44 minute) picture in which precious little happens. The only gun that is fired is aimed into the air, as a signal. The film privileges atmosphere over action and it ends inconclusively or ambiguously. AO Scott again said that it dealt with “intense emotions, intractable social problems and human truths that are too deep, too sad and perhaps too painfully absurd to name.” True Western fans might hate it. I was tempted to.
It’s certainly a ‘beautiful’ film, visually, with some stunning shots. Roger Ebert said:
At a time when many directors fall contentedly into the rhythm of a standard visual language, Reichardt devises a strategy that suggests the distance and isolation of these travelers. This is the first new feature film I’ve seen in a long time that has been photographed in the 1:1.33 screen ratio (as all movies were before the early 1950s). That’s the ratio of many, maybe most, classic Westerns, but we expect wide-screen these days, and her frame encloses her characters — not in the landscape (it appears limitless) but in their plight.
The incredibly arid Oregon High Desert locations are shot, by Christopher Blauvelt, the cinematographer of the 2020 Emma, in unusually yellow tints, very reminiscent of Australian Westerns like The Proposition or Sweet Country, making the scenery seem even more alien.
It is a ‘woman’s Western’ in that it was directed by a woman, Kelly Reichardt, and women play key, even leading roles. It’s a small wagon train, only three families (we presume they have broken away from the main party to take a shortcut which they have been talked into), guided by a mountebank, the incompetent blowhard, Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who gets them well and truly lost in the Oregon High Desert. It is the women who essentially take command.
Reichardt’s women (Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson) are true Westerners. They are over-clothed in long-skirted and long-sleeved dresses and huge bonnets which must have given them tunnel vision. They do most of the work and appear subservient. It is the men (Will Patton, Paul Dano and Neal Huff) who seem to take all the decisions. Yet as with many societies in which women were (and in many places still are) repressed by law and customs, they have power and influence. They may not show it, often, but it’s there. Ms Reichardt often shows the action in reaction shots as the women watch. In the end it is the women who decide what to do.
The real Stephen Meek (1807 – 89) had been a trapper who worked for William Sublette’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company and he pioneered a branch of the Oregon Trail later called the Meek Cutoff, first following the aptly named Malheur River and crossing the waterless Oregon High Desert.
The 1845 trip was a grueling failure. One participant later wrote:
We had men out in every direction in search of water. They traveled 40 or 50 miles in search of water but found none. You cannot imagine how we all felt. Go back, we could not and we knew not what was before us. Our provisions were failing us. There was sorrow and dismay depicted on every countenance. We were like mariners lost at sea and in this mountainous wilderness we had to remain for five days.
We open with a river crossing, with no dialogue or music, as the women laboriously wade across, carrying their loads (including a bizarre trapping of another life, a yellow bird in a cage) over the the dangerous waters. Like much of the rest of the film, this is done slowly and lengthily.
Afterwards, much of the trek is shown as tedious and long, as the women walk and the men lead the oxen, which pull the wagons ploddingly. Much is done to the sole accompaniment of the high plains wind – no background music and the squeak of an ungreased wagon wheel, vaguely reminiscent of the noise of Leone’s wind pump in Once Upon a Time in the West, emphasizing the monotony. I said in my review of 1883 that the show, and indeed most wagon-train Westerns, concentrated on accidents, bandits, Indian attacks and violent storms, and were action-packed. There was never a dull moment. Monotony, which must have been the overwhelming characteristic of these voyages, doesn’t make for good cinema. Ms Reichardt has no truck with that. She revels in the tedium.
There are long shots in the dark where almost nothing is visible. Cameras are placed and remain there. Always slow moving, at times the trek seems stationary.
Because the characters say so little, the Indian they keep is entirely inscrutable to them (is he praying, talking to himself, to them?) and the one garrulous English-speaking person, Meek, spouts hot air and anyway has unclear diction, we are not given dialogue to explain or develop plot. We have to infer.
When they capture the lone Indian, a Cayuse (Rod Rondeaux) the cold-blooded, almost academic discussion as to whether to kill him or keep him is chilling. Against the advice of Meek, they decide to keep him. He might lead them to water. Or to their doom. They don’t know, and nor do we.
The reviewer in The Guardian said, “This superbly made, austere film is Reichardt’s best yet, certainly a huge advance on her previous work … and a powerful new addition to the western genre.” She or he could be right. But I’m not sure. I don’t think I’d watch it again, if that’s any guide.