I turn the volume up and press my ear to the speaker to decipher what the men are saying as they speak to each other. They have separated themselves from the women in the group. The women—their faces barely visible in large, concealing bonnets—look toward the men as they debate the way forward. The women struggle to hear what is being said, what is being decided about their fate, just as I struggle to detect the men’s words.
Some films are viewed and some films are experienced. I’ve re-watched Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) several times now because it’s more akin to living another life than observing a movie. A small group of men and women, and a young boy, are traveling an unknown path along the Oregon Trail in 1845, hoping to find safe passage through harsh terrain. Their guide, a man by the name of Stephen Meek (played by Bruce Greenwood)—spouting tall tales, promising water and riches—is boastful, suspect, and seemingly lost. They wander as their thirst and hope erodes on the heels of Meek’s lead, but who is a woman to question him, even as their lives are in danger?
Meek’s Cutoff commits to long sequences of silent walking and just-out-of-reach conversations. We see the women collecting wood, kneading bread, cooking, dropping weight from the back of a wagon as the journey grows long. We live the effects of the environment, the group’s growing distrust, and their dire confusion. The women ask one another if their spouses have relayed any information in private conversations. These wives are largely kept in the dark, even as the threat of death hovers. We see snippets of the men worry amongst themselves too. Does Stephen Meek know where he is going? Will he lead them to desperately needed water? When Meek pulls ahead to search for relief, the group wonders if they’ve been abandoned just as we, the audience as participants, are left to sit in quiet panic.
I admire Reichardt’s bravery here, her willingness to eschew conventions to give her audience room to think. What remains unsaid in Meek’s Cutoff functions as white space within a poem or portions of a canvas left blank. The film is painted with a silence that lives in unison with gorgeous, harrowing cinematography. Much of the film’s score is the music of the landscape: wheels turning and squeaking, footsteps on rocky ground, weary animals grunting. Composed music is spare and ominous in this world where the settlers’ survival rests at the mercy of the land, just as the women’s lives are in the hands of men, husbands and strangers alike.
As a writer, I appreciate when artists take risks and trust the reader (or viewer) to leap with them. Writers and directors who challenge us engage in work that feels closer to an exchange of ideas as opposed to a one-sided conversation. Reichardt makes bold choices, and her work often reminds me of Virginia Woolf, particularly in her use of silence. Reichardt is similarly comfortable exploring the breadth that exists between a character’s words and their actions. A single frame or scene can reveal all in the right hands, as the silence commonly forced upon women contains boundless potential when artists acknowledge its power.
I don’t typically find myself drawn to films categorized as westerns, but Meek’s Cutoff transcends the expected tropes in ways I find endlessly inspiring. Reichardt’s immersive techniques and focus on the women traveling in the group—especially as the lens settles on newly married Emily Tetherow (played by Michelle Williams) and Emily’s point of view— is refreshingly radical when compared to what we associate with American westerns. These are not Hollywood-glossed pioneers marching forward with confidence, aided by slick, hurried edits. They are unsure, adrift, and often blinded by hubris and narrow thinking. The divisions between men and women, white settlers and Native Americans, are prominent. Unfamiliar language is purposely presented without subtitles. We are made uncomfortable because of the film’s authenticity to a specific time—loosely based on a true story—that mirrors what we experience today. I don’t know these women, yet I know the feeling of being hushed when truth is concealed, of not being listed to, and I recognize the ugly river of racism rushing forward now as then.
The vastness of the American West is traditionally viewed as a backdrop for male-centered stories while women’s stories are too often limited to smaller, domestic spaces. In Meek’s Cutoff, this false binary is subverted. Reichardt embraces the camera’s capacity for intimacy and scope, from Emily’s face to infinite landscape, giving equal weight to interiority and expansiveness and immersing us in both perspectives. By choosing to interrogate the female experience close-up and on a larger scale, she acknowledges that one is constantly communicating with the other, and both are worthy of our attention.
Remaining true to her vision, Reichardt refuses to serve an ending designed to temper our unease. In atypical western fashion, the final decision rests with the female protagonist and questions remain. If we look closely, if we strain our senses further, there may be a direction pointed to, the sense of an ending, but there is still room for debate and uncertainty. For me, this is not an ambiguous cop-out, but an ending that feels true to the story, and a lesson I take with me in my own work.
I pull myself away from the speaker, knowing I won’t hear every word the men utter, nor am I meant to. Instead, I live in the world Reichardt has created, with these women, if only for a short time, by accepting who they are and what they face, imperfections and all. To attempt otherwise misses the point entirely and treats this story as a puzzle to be solved, and the women therein as creatures of myth separate from our modern lives—and nothing could be further from the truth.
by Dorothy Bendel
Categories: Anything and Everything