Anyone coming to this film expecting to sit back and be indulged in classic western vista’s and panoramic views of 1800’s Oregon will be sorely disappointed. While most certainly slotting into the Western genre, Kelly Reichardt’s vision in “Meek’s Cutoff” is much more hemmed in; as limited and boxy as those covered wagons snaking across the dusty, dry plains.
Set in 1845, the story concerns a party of emigrants on the Oregon Trail, who decide to break away from the main stem of the wagon train to take a shortcut. Guided by fur trapper and explorer Stephen Meek, the party believed Indians might try to attack them in the Blue Mountains; so Meek offered an alternate route which had not been tracked before. Reichardt uses this small party, made up of three couples; one of whom is expecting a baby, and another with a young boy, to stand in for the original 200-300 or so who made the original journey. At the point at which we join them, sunny optimism and the excited hope of finding a new Eden have evaporated and the party are stumbling through dry brush and punishing temperatures, making little headway. Our attention is focussed on the numbing daily chores, which have to be endured, such as lighting fires, making breakfast and repairing damaged wagon wheels.
Amongst the pioneering couples are the young Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), devout scripture readers William and Glory White (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson) and the older Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) accompanied by his younger, second wife Emily (Michelle Williams), who harbours her own misgivings about Meek and his ability to lead them. It’s apparent from the off that the men make all the decisions; they gather and talk quietly amongst themselves, away from the women who are left out of earshot, straining to catch what bits of talk they can. The men are unhappy with Meek’s guidance, thinking he has led them astray for his own unknown purpose; and in fact in an early scene we see Thomas Gately (Dano) scratching the word “lost” into a tree stump. Meek constantly refutes their objections and says himself at one point, “we’re not lost, we’re just finding our way”. Along the way the party are followed by an Indian, whom the men subsequently capture, in the hope that he may lead them to water, as their own supplies dwindle perilously. Tension grows amongst the party as Emily (Michelle Williams) feeds the indian and later repairs his shoe, in the hope that this might persuade him to help them.
What Reichardt gives us here is a de-mythologised Wild West, far away from the bar brawls and shoot-outs we’ve come to expect from the genre. She chose to show the film in what’s called Academy Ratio, that is, a squared off frame that limits what we see, like the women in their bonnets and the covered wagons, that blocks out any grand widescreen views. This puts us in the frame, literally, with the characters; we become part of their journey, at times nestling over the shoulder of protagonists as they trundle along. This keeps us with them, makes us part of their experience, hems us in too. There is no room for the big skies or epic scenery of the mythic West here, we’re rooted, along with these weary travellers, in the deadening now, pushing forever on.