Conflict and terrain go hand in hand with the great western filmmakers. Anthony Mann found it in rock faces and rivers. For John Ford, it was peaks and valleys. Budd Boetticher explored dark caves and dense tree lines. Kelly Reichardt is a different type of cinematic cartographer, blurring iconic landscapes into a ghostly void for her deeply unsettling and near-mystical film Meek’s Cutoff, a slow burn of a western set amidst an arid region with very few natural compasses to spare. For the small band of travelers at the center of Reichardt’s film, directionality fluctuates depending on the mood of their burly guide, a rough neck named Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who may or may not be completely incompetent. With Meek at the helm of this sinking ship, a day’s ride seems to take forever, and perspective is not only limited by hats, bonnets, and wagon covers, but gender and genre as well. Landscape and duration may be untrustworthy in Meek’s Cutoff, but so is every western convention withering in the desert heat.
Unsettling doubt drifts under every movement in Meek’s Cutoff, which begins with the daily routine of the wagon train at work: fording a river, washing laundry, and collecting water. Reichardt doesn’t illuminate grandiose visions of prosperity, just the grinding toll of recycling and repeating work. The hopes and dreams of Manifest Destiny are long gone, replaced by the numbing continuity of forward momentum into an unknown abyss. Dialogue doesn’t come until some five minutes into the film, and even then characters are often muted by distance. Conversations between the three men of the group – Solomon (Will Patton), Thomas (Paul Dano), and William (Neal Huff) – occur just out of audible range from their respective wives, Emily (Michelle Williams), Millie (Zoe Gately), and Glory (Shirley Henderson). This dynamic is essential for Reichardt, who utilizes different parts of the frame to section off the groups in calculating ways. Always standing somewhere on the periphery is Meek, who swoops in at the last moment with a story or argument that contextualize the group’s struggles into some faux-western mythology. His early fable about a grizzly bear is especially telling, momentarily prolonging his already slipping hold over the group’s trust.
As individual doubt (especially Emily’s) connects with a growing communal tension, the disquieting calm of the landscape begins to take hold. Reichardt’s choice to shoot the film in full frame aspect ratio has everything to do with this effect. The limited perspective makes the open desert feel more claustrophobic, even crippling despite the seemingly endless scope. Slow tracking shots meticulously stalk the wagon train, merging subjective points-of-view – usually the women’s as they scan the small hills and sage brush for signs of life – with an unflinching objective eye charting their every move from offscreen. At one point, different horizons effortlessly dissolve on top of each other, further articulating Reichardt’s need to create a landscape of unease. Each physical step, each turn of the wheel comes to represent ideological and motivational leaps backward, making Meek’s Cutoff a punishing film for both the characters and the audience.
Despite this deepening sense of dread, Reichardt instills stylistic vibrancy to every moment of Meek’s Cutoff. While the invisible walls of dehydration and rage close in, lyrical tangents connect the characters to the harsh landscape. Certain stunning compositions favor formations of perfectly rendered triangles – people, wagons, campfires – providing the film a necessary aesthetic structure to offset its more elliptical storytelling, a literal and figurative wall of protection from what is just beyond the frame. But Reichardt’s occasional cutaways to the moon shrouded in thin clouds, or the sun relentlessly beating down from above, are subtle reminders these fragile formations are temporary blockades against an imposing natural power. Darkness and light play an essential role in the editing scheme as well. Reichardt hard cuts from near complete darkness to blinding rays of daylight, constructing a jarring transition pattern that literally affects the viewer’s eyesight, putting us in the wagon train’s position as they slowly fall to pieces.
Midway through Meek’s Cutoff, right when the drain of the monotonous journey seems to be at its peak, Meek and Solomon capture a rogue Indian (Rod Rondreaux) who has been tracking their progress for some time. This foreign addition to the already disintegrating group spirals the narrative into a near-metaphysical state, a realm of almost science-fiction eeriness that’s difficult to describe. Emily is intrinsically drawn to the Indian in a specifically elemental way rather than a sexual one. Meek, who earlier bragged about his “indifference to the squeamish”, continuously argues the group must kill the Indian outright, “the savage’s” potential deception being too great. As the wagon train continues to move forward, the travelers dropping out valuables and furniture to lessen the weight and burden of the trip, but physical weight only gets replaced by hefty moral dilemma. Meek and Emily’s contrasting opinions grow more vocal and near a violent climax, and the rest of the group becomes increasingly baked by growing fear, eager to keep moving forward in the hopes something will change. Hell? More like purgatory.
Eventually, Meek’s Cutoff ends, but it feels like its narrative pattern might go on forever. Reichardt merges western stoicism, magical realism, horror, and raw emotion together in one final shot-reverse-shot. “We’re all just playing our parts now,” Meek says as the Indian seemingly evaporates into the horizon. His foreboding words give Meek’s Cutoff a staggering weight and ambiguity, not to mention a grave sense of menace to ponder. Like each of her films, Reichardt charts the moment in time when a rite of passage comes to a crossroads, either turning into shallow grave or a path of enlightenment. Amazingly, Meek’s Cutoff never lets us know which way the crow flies.