At first glance Meek’s Cutoff feels like a western in name only as apart from its time and place – the Oregon Trail in 1845 – it doesn’t seem to bare many of the other features that define what a western is. Based on a story about a group of emigrants who became lost in the Oregon Desert, with inspiration taken from the diary records of women who lived during the period, Meek’s Cutoff feels more like a social-realist film that happens to have a period setting. The focus on the monotony of day after day of travel and chores, plus the naturalist performances, situates Meek’s Cutoff in closer proximity to independent director Kelly Reichardt’s previous understated films rather than classical Hollywood or revisionist westerns. However, through Reichardt’s subversion of many of the western’s generic traits, Meek’s Cutoff does become a sort of unique anti-western and explores the genre’s general theme of what it means to be civilised.
Reichardt depicts the landscape not as a frontier that can be tamed, but as an all encompassing and vast element that the characters are at the mercy of. Long shots are frequently employed to re-enforce how small and vulnerable the human figures are within the landscape, where they are literally lost and increasingly in need of water. Dialogue and music are minimal with the ambient sounds of the windswept plains dominating the soundtrack. Elements of nature, such as bushes and tree branches, are often filmed in the foreground of shots to overlap the characters. The results are almost like watching a documentary and the combination of static shots and slow camera movements sometimes evokes the meditative style of Yasujirō Ozu’s films. It is achingly beautiful to look at.
Meek’s Cutoff also contains a strong political allegory. The settlers are lost in the wilderness because of the mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) whom they hired to take them over the Cascade Mountains. They placed their trust in Meek and now he has led them astray, although it is unclear whether this is due to him being incompetent or having a more sinister agenda. In order to deflect attention from his immense failings, Meek resorts to stirring up racial hatred against their Native American prisoner, known simply as The Indian (Rod Rondeaux), in order to make him into the group’s scapegoat. The interaction between the group serves as a microcosm for what has happened in recent contemporary politics, particularly in America, when charismatic leaders drum up resentment against ‘the other’ to deflect attention away from their own inadequacies.
Reichardt’s final significant subversion of the western tradition is that she delivers the point-of-view of the female characters, as opposed to the men, and later also the perspective of The Indian. Throughout the film The Indian, Meek and one of the women Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) gradually take on particular characteristics to reflect various social attitudes and power struggles. The way the characters perceive each other, especially The Indian and Emily, becomes the core of the film. Reichardt ultimately resolves the various tensions through her representation of perception, as opposed to conventional narrative closure. By privileging the dynamics between the characters over story, Reichardt has created an extremely rewarding cinematic experience that is rich in political commentary, pathos and visual beauty.