Meek’s Cutoff, Or How the West Wasn’t Won…Yet

This post is the first installment in my “Go West” series. [Read the introductory post, “Go West, Paradise is there…” explaining the concept behind the series. Bonus: see a picture of me in 1989 on Rendezvous Mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Scrunch socks do make an appearance, as do some fantastically feathered bangs, so check it out.]

Starring Michelle Williams and Will Patton, Meek’s Cutoff (2010) is based on actual historical events, and it depicts the journey of a small, errant wagon train headed west in search of land and a better life. Under the direction of self-appointed expert and guide Stephen Meek, the group loses its way in trying to find an easier path across the Cascade Mountains. Meek, it seems, is no more knowledgeable about the territory than the three families who have enlisted his help.

Whether or not Meek’s Cutoff is a bore, a realistic depiction of 1840s westward migration, or an aesthetically arresting work of cinematography, the film is not without substance. [Full disclosure: I thought parts of the film were dreadfully slow yet I  appreciated Kelly Reichardt’s preservation of details normally overlooked in more shoot-em-up-style westerns. I thought many of the  scenes were artfully and breathtakingly framed, as well.]

What I most enjoyed about the film was the way it resisted and ultimately inverted the typical myth of the American West. In contemporary and historical retellings of westward migration in the nineteenth century, the frontier or the “American West” looms as an endlessly open, unoccupied “promised land” just ripe for the taking. By comparison, the landscape in Meek’s Cutoff is barren, unavailable, and populated by native peoples that few in the wagon party understood or cared to know better.

The film’s conclusion carries this theme to its apotheosis by suggesting that the western frontier of 1840s America was more than an anti-Eden; it also couldn’t be tolerated without cooperating with Native Americans, and it couldn’t be made into the promised land without serious, potentially long-term, complications.

For those who haven’t seen Meek’s Cutoff, it’s important to know that it is not so much a film about how the wagon train gets lost but rather what happens in the aftermath of that realization: the group’s supply of potable water is dangerously low, and what’s worse, they’re floundering  aimlessly and without verifiable direction in Oregon’s arid, high desert, a situation which only increases the direness of their predicament.

As they amble steadily along, they encounter a lone  Cayuse, played by Rod Rondeaux, who eventually is captured and forced to lead the group to fresh water.

Kelly Reichardt’s film resists any sort of closure, though. As the group stalls in their approach towards yet another ridge where, on the other side, they hope to encounter water, the camera cuts to the Cayuse, his expression neutral (or at least unreadable). Then, in the next instant and without warning, the credits roll.

I saw Meek’s Cutoff with a small crowd at a local, ongoing film series.  Half of the viewers sat in stunned silence at the end of the film while the other half chuckled (and maybe even shook their heads).  Both responses, however, were reactions to the film’s refusal to answer certain questions about the group’s fate: Did they find water? Was the Cayuse leading them to water or to an ambush, as some in the wagon party feared?

In refusing to speculate about the group’s success or demise, Meek’s Cutoff successfully turns the myth of the American-West-as-promised-land on its head. Perhaps if Meek’s Cutoff were to be given a subtitle, it would read:  “how the West wasn’t won…yet.” We don’t know if the group will find water, although we know they are likely close to a water source. (They find a lone tree during the last five minutes of the film, a sight they haven’t seen in a while.) We also don’t know if the Cayuse is leading them towards water, as we, like the members of the wagon party, can’t understand what he’s saying. And, if we, like Michelle Williams’ character, are inclined to believe that the Cayuse is willing to help the party, despite his capture and mistreatment, we don’t know if he, too, has become lost or if he is leading the party to a water source that is simply too far away to be of help.

The film’s bare bones plot line (which shouldn’t be confused with its larger symbolic significance) and unresolved ending surprised me because I had watched the trailer in deciding whether to view the film. The trailer presents the film as a prototypical Western with nearly all of the requisite ingredients: beautiful scenery (with some artfully framed shots, to boot); intrigue, danger, and life-or-death stakes; and most significantly, action.

However, many reviewers, from esteemed critics to casual bloggers, note that action is  noticeably absent in Meek’s Cutoff. As a result, some viewers, deem Meek’s Cutoff as downright boring:

Be prepared to take a bath after this sucker, because it’s quite possibly the most parched and dusty calico-fest I’ve ever attended.  This is what is called a “find it, make it, break it, fix it, use it, eat it” movie.  In other words: countless moments of precious time are wasted watching people figure out how to make things out of wood and repair their wagons.  Then when the wagon is fixed, they go on wandering and wandering.

I definitely agree: we spend a lot of time simply watching the wagon party make camp, cook, trudge through the high desert alongside the wagons, etc., and even the most suspenseful events are dragged out for so long that they cease to be riveting.  (Like the time the wagons need to be led, one by one and via ropes, down a huge hill. One wagon breaks free, and its barrel of water spills. My description of this event is likely more exciting than the film’s portrayal of it.)

Yes, action-wise, much of the film is bland.  (I did, however, enjoy watching Williams wield–and shoot–a gun, and I thought the scenes in which Rondeaux’s character spoke were pretty powerful.) But in terms of the film’s allegorical content–its representation of the American West as both a physical landscape and occupied territory–it’s quite rich (and valuable, at that). I particularly like what the film implies about outsiders’ ability to access the landscape’s physical resources, and I think there is much to say about the interactions between the Cayuse and the wagon party if we view these figures as being representative of larger groups or forces. 

In sum, Meek’s Cutoff was a little boring; it was odd and not a typical Western film. It fails to live up to most viewers’ generic expectations, but it’s worthy in so many other ways. See it.

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Posted in Visual Media

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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