I was lucky enough to catch Meek’s Cutoff (2010) at this year’s Bird’s Eye View Festival, the London-based event that celebrates women’s contribution to film. Even though director Kelly Reichardt has played down the feminist aspects of the film, focusing instead on a political angle, this film is an unequivocal historical critique of the treatment of women during the mid-1800s.
The plot is based on historical events that occurred in 1845. Meek, an historical character (1806-1886) guided a large group of hopeful prospectors moving west across the barren landscape of the Oregon Dessert. In the film rather than dealing with a large group it has been tailored down to three families being guided by the overly talkative Meek played magnificently by Bruce Greenwood (although you wouldn’t know it was him for all the facial hair).
Meek’s Cutoff is quite unlike anything I had ever seen before and I must admit that until I watched it a second time a few weeks later I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. This is not a film packed with clichés of shoot-outs, card games and can-can dancers in swing-door saloons this film has broken the western mould deciding to look at the Wild West from a female perspective. In fact it is more of a road movie than a western with the physical journey representative of an mental and characteristic growth or in some cases collapse.
Meek’s Cutoff presents a battle of wills between the female and male characters. For the most part the women are content to obey their husbands and Meek, all except the strong willed Emily, performed deftly by Michele Williams who doesn’t believe Meek’s tall tales.
There is intensity in both the cinematography of the landscapes and performances. Meek’s sexism and racism is enhanced by the choices in set up of the shots. It was shot in academy ratio (making the shots squarer) that creates tunneled views of the expansive barren landscapes; the focus upon the desert allows it to become a central character in the film.
The way in which the desert is filmed creates an eerie and surreal atmosphere; there are many scenes where the tops and bottoms of shots merge revealing a wagon that was once at the bottom of the screen to appear at the top. The sparse dialogue is purposefully mumbled making us emotionally replicate the frustration of the female characters this is further enhanced by the verbose Meek who although deft with language lacks the knowledge to guide the group properly all because he is a man.
Another layer is added to this already highly textured film by the scenes being set out to show the emotional and physical distance between the men and women. The women grind the coffee, knead the bread and fetch the water whilst the men make the decisions not caring about the women’s opinions.
Meek’s Cutoff is one for those who enjoy a challenge and those who don’t want an easy viewing. The film posses what the good films should, a challenge. The film forces you to think and engage with the characters on a meaningful level. The shear weight of this film is intense, the barren bleak landscape grinds on you as a viewer and the pace of the over all piece is incredibly slow. But these are not criticisms, these aspects are not faults, they trigger in the viewer the precise emotions of frustration and desperation felt by the women who were forced into these situations, a truly powerful film.