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Written by: Jonathan Raymond

Directed by: Kelly Reichardt

Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Rod Rondeaux, Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan

 

The covered wagon is so iconic of the Old West and watching Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff led me to consider that object I’d seen my whole life on TV and in films but never ever thought about. These were dragged along the Oregon Trail by the hundreds, I suppose, and with great effort. Though these wagons were no doubt signs of some meagre amount of wealth, and allowed people to move their possessions across the country, I suspect they were as much a burden as they were anything else. Rickety and heavy, It seems to me it would have been quite costly to maintain one, not to mention the cost of keeping oxen healthy enough to pull one. Such a tenuous balance between survival and disaster plagues the characters of Meek’s Cutoff as they wander through the High Desert in search of the Cascade Mountains with growing uncertainty.

Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) was hired to guide three families on what was supposed to be a two week trip which has, by the film’s start, already stretched into five weeks with still no end in sight. Meek has led the families on a shortcut, and the growing consensus is that he has no idea where he is going and that they will all die for his carelessness. I should clarify: that is the consensus among the wives but the men agree to continue trusting Meek’s guidance. The men capture an Indian (Rod Rondeaux) and proceed to tie him up and beat him, all in an effort to get him to lead them to water. The group begins to splinter, as Meek is impulsive and spiteful and untrustworthy, while Emily (Michelle Williams) is the only real voice of logic and reason throughout. The group is lost and they all know it, but what more can they do but keep moving and hope to find water? Reichardt so frequently shoots the group from such an enormous distance, these people seem stranded on a nearly Beckettian scale.

Like last year’s True Grit (2010), this revisionist Western lets foolish white men shoot themselves in the foot, and doesn’t have to go out of its way to place true strength in the hands of the film’s female characters. The men huddle and conspire and decide what to do, and Reichardt watches from a few paces away along where the wives listen in but are not consulted. It would be funny if it weren’t so dire, and even the character of Meek should be comical but is instead grotesque. There is a perceptive complexity in the emotional relationships between this cast of travellers as issues of gender, marriage, race and class tangle up an already taut and desperate situation.

All the way through, Meek’s Cutoff feels like a Western but really it has none of those elements. Horses are led but rarely ridden, guns are drawn but are not fired, there’s an Indian but he’s a quiet and lonely soul. Arguments are had and quarrels are settled but mostly fear, resentment and hopelessness smoulder behind downcast eyes. Reichardt constructs such isolation, with a barely visible note of surrealism, that these might as well be the last people on Earth. There’s no framing with flashbacks or scenes of leaving home, there’s no world beyond this. This band are bound to chase Indians and pull wagons through the plains forever.

 

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