Dir. Kelly Reichardt. U.S.A. 2010.

Talking Pictures alias







About Us


“Tattered gods slouching in their rags across the waste. Trekking the dried floor of a mineral sea where it lay cracked and broken like a fallen plate.”- Cormac McCarthy

In sharp contrast to accepted opinion, out of 250,000 American settlers who crossed the Plains between 1840 and 1860, only 362 died in battles between the settlers and the Indians, and many more Indians than is supposed gave the new settlers directions, showed them where to find water, sold them food and horses, and served as guides and interpreters. Shot in a boxy screen ratio similar to Westerns of the 1950s, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff is a haunting tale of the struggle for survival of three pioneer families in Oregon Territory in 1845 and their issues of trust with an unnamed Indian that they have captured. 

Like Kevin Costner's Dancing with Wolves before it, the film attempts to overcome the stereotype of Indians as primitive, murderous savages spreading fear and death among terrified pioneers, showing them as real human beings. Written by Jonathan Raymond, Meek's Cutoff  is not a story of “progress” or “manifest destiny”, but a depiction of the difficult options that the real settlers were faced with, options that were never clear cut. The travelers have placed their trust in Stephen Meek, (Bruce Greenwood), a boastful and untrustworthy guide who attempts to lead them to the Columbia River by traveling across the Eastern and Central Oregon Desert, heading west. 

As in Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt's characters are lost without a significant guidepost to hold on to, agonizingly dependent on others for survival. Thrust into the middle of a barren world, the travelers: Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), her husband Solomon (Will Patton), Thomas (Paul Dano), and his wife (Zoe Kazan), the White family, Glory (Shirley Henderson), William (Neal Huff) and their ten-year-old son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson) are uncertain when or even if they will find water or whether they will be attacked by nomadic Indian tribes. The film opens with three covered wagons crossing a stream, the wagons and their horses barely staying above water. 
Once across, the families look to the grizzled Meek for guidance but are not reassured. He insists that he knows the way and tells them “we are not lost, we are just finding our way.” When asked, "How far's the route?" Meek answers, "We'll find out," and remarks oddly, “We're all just playing our parts now. This was written long before we got here.” Some have suggested that the film is an allegory about the danger of blindly trusting political leaders but Reichardt does not go there, and the film is wisely left open to interpretation. Like the families trek through the desert, Meek's Cutoff moves slowly and can be a challenge to those who are looking for the action of an old-fashioned Western. 

There are a few close-ups but the cinematography of Chris Blauvelt keeps the settlers mostly at a distance, showing them in the middle of a vast terrain, surrounded on all sides by emptiness. Much of the film is seen from the women's point of view. Remaining in the background, they walk behind the covered wagons and do not taking part in decision making. The women strain to hear the men talking to each other in the distance, but mainly are seen going about their chores: sewing, gathering wood, and cooking. The dialogue is minimal and often words can be barely heard or understood. 

Though it is unclear at first where the film is headed, when an Indian (Rod Rondeaux) of the Cayuse tribe is captured, the issue of who to trust becomes a paramount theme. Unable to communicate in the same language (no subtitles are shown), the families do not know if the Indian is a scout who will signal his tribe to attack their party or whether he will lead them to water. Meek wants to kill him but the families desperate need for water persuades them to let him live, even though they are uncertain as to where he will take them. Giving up being understood, the Cayuse talks to himself out loud, carves words or symbols in the rocks, and smiles enigmatically when one of the wagons careens down a hill. 

His motives are obscure, but when William White collapses from exhaustion, he sings a healing chant over the fallen man that has a calming and reassuring effect. Slowly, Emily manifests a previously hidden inner strength, taking a stand against those who want the Indian to be killed, even courageously pointing a rifle aimed at Meek as he is about to shoot their captive. As Kicking Bird said to Dances with Wolves in the 1990 film of the same name, "I was just thinking that of all the trails in this life, there is one that matters more than all the others. It is the trail of a true human being. I think you are on this trail and it is good to see." The same can be said of Emily and, of course, Kelly Reichardt.

Howard Schumann

Search this site or the web        powered by FreeFind
Site searchWeb search
   Home | News | Features
    Book Reviews | About Us