Characters Respond to an Uncertain Crisis in Reichardt’s Innovative ‘Meek’s Cutoff’

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Based on real diaries, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff tells the story of a group of 19th-century travelers trying to reach the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Ambiguity and bravery blend in this tense, innovative Western. (AEL: 5/5)

Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker

Even the premise is hackle-raising: it’s 1845, and a small group of prairie travelers has broken off from a larger wagon train to take a “shortcut” following the guidance of the brashly confident “Stephen Meek” (Bruce Greenwood). Already, by the time the film begins, their larger dreams are mostly gone, and now they’re just hoping to come out of this alive—whatever “coming out of it” looks like. They might find water, but is that the end of their journey? When will they reach safety, if they ever reach it at all? And what will the rest of their lives look like?

The film introduces us to the sensory experiences of their perilous routine: silent, diligent group chores; unknown threats on the horizon; the sun beating down. Slowly, our own exhaustion and concern grow with the travelers’ weariness. With deft acting and skillful pacing, you can feel the heat and dryness in their throats.

The three women sit under a canvas shade as the men head out searching for signs of water. The women knit, which is both futile and comforting, amid such uncertainty. Their moods at this moment are characteristic of their personalities: “Emily Tetherow” (Michelle Williams) is grim and determined, “Millie Gately” (Zoe Kazan) is panicky, and pregnant “Glory White” (Shirley Henderson) brims with motherly concern over her son “Jimmy” (Tommy Nelson).

The husbands, “Soloman Tetherow” (Will Patton), “Thomas Gately” (Paul Dano), and “William White” (Neal Huff), make decisions together mainly out of panic and reaction. They flail for directions, betting their lives on whether to break from Meek in favor of their own hazy intuition.

Then, in a panic-rushed decision, they capture an indigenous Cayuse person (Rod Rondeaux). While they have no way of communicating with him, nor he with them, they are suddenly presented with a clear decision of whether and how to use this opportunity. Meek wants to kill their new companion immediately, trained by “fur trapping experience” (a hefty dollop of racist assumption) that indigenous people cannot be trusted. The rest of the group wants to keep him alive, guessing that he must know the way to water and believing that he is most likely their last hope.

The indigenous person is a unique character because he speaks only Cayuse, and his lines are not subtitled, which means no one knows what he’s saying–not the other characters, nor the audience unless they happen to know Cayuse. He recognizes that his best chance of surviving will be cooperating with these people and showing them that he can help. But we never know what he’s thinking except for what he chooses to show. He is captured, but he holds all the power. (To read more about the film’s use of Cayuse dialogue and the research behind it, check out this article from Slate.)

This film stands out to me for this way of leaving information out. We feel lost in the wilderness as the travelers do, with no decisive hints about possible hope or failure. The film’s inconclusive ending leaves us wondering what will happen to them, an uneasiness that unnervingly mimics real life.

© Amelie Lasker (12/6/20) FF2 Media

Read FF2’s review of Meek’s Cutoff from the time of its first release here!

Featured Photo: Shirley Henderson as “Glory White.”

Middle Photo: Michelle Williams as “Emily Tetherow.”

Bottom Photo: Zoe Kazan as “Millie Gately.”

Photo Credits: Eric Hill, Simon Max Hill, Corey Walter

Q: Does Meek’s Cutoff pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes!

While the men are the ones who tend to take charge of the decisions (at least in the first half of the film), it’s the women’s perspectives who get the focus. We see them sitting together and discussing while their husbands and sons explore. And gradually, the women start to take their place in decision making, too.

Tags: FF2Media, Turner Classic Movies, Women Make Film

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Amelie Lasker joined FF2 Media in early 2016 after graduating from Columbia University where she studied English and history. She has written plays and had readings for Columbia’s student-written theatre company Nomads, edited the blog for Columbia’s film journal Double Exposure, and worked on film crews and participated in workshops at Columbia University Film Productions. She spent junior year abroad at Cambridge University, where she had many opportunities for student playwrights to see their work produced. 
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