Images from Meek's Cutoff:
“We’re not lost,” says Stephen Meek. “We’re just findin’ our way.” They are lost.
The menfolk, making bad decisions at a distance.
Women visually likened to chattel and caged birds.
The film’s ending, a challenge and an invitation.
The ending of Meek’s Cutoff comes so suddenly, leaving its story so unresolved that first-time viewers may start in shock and something like indignation. We’ve devoted a lot of time and concentration and forfeited a lot of the cheaper, more immediate rewards of movie-going to follow the film to this conclusion. We’ve sat through long, silent sequences, strained to see action in near-total darkness and to overhear faint dialogue recorded at a distance. The film builds its narrative tension with meticulous slowness, withholding obvious payoffs, investing everything in the question: will the settlers find their way? When the credits roll and we realize we’re never going to know, we feel less disappointed than betrayed.
Everything else about Meek’s Cutoff—its austerely beautiful photography, precisely measured pace, the restraint and assurance of its acting–is the product of such obvious seriousness of purpose that its abrupt ending can’t be ill-considered. In retrospect, Meek’s Cutoff is most intelligible and rewarding read as allegory. Although based on an historical episode, in Kelly Reichart’s hands the story becomes an extended metaphor about Western civilization having lost its way. (One of the first images in the film is someone scrawling the word LOST on a fallen tree, like the inscrutable word CROATOAN left behind by Virginia’s legendary lost colony.) This wagon train heading westward on the Oregon Trail, at the very end of the frontier, is a microcosm for expansionist capitalism running low on resources and reaching the limits of a plundered world. The men have been in charge so far, taking one wrong turn after another, stubbornly compounding their disastrous course, while the women have watched helplessly and with decreasing confidence from a distance. Their leader looks more and more like an incompetent blowhard, and their situation is growing dire. They appear to be doomed.
Meek’s Cutoff is a Western told, for once, from the point of view of its women; near the film’s beginning we hear a girl reading aloud from scripture a passage about the naming of Eve. Again and again we are placed in the women’s frustrating position, excluded from the action and decision-making, forced to spy on their menfolk from a distance, eavesdropping on their faint dialogue over the shirring of insects.
Women are visually relegated to the status of chattel, framed with the livestock and wagons as they wait during the men’s convocations, carefully carrying a caged bird across a river (a bird identified with the twittering Lily, whose mustard dress dully echoes its yellow feathers). They’re also associated with slaves and oppressed races: “Working like niggers once again,” one of them grumbles as they fetch water and grind coffee in the predawn dark. And it’s a woman, our heroine Emily Tetherow, who will eventually forge an uneasy alliance with a captured Cayuse Indian.
During a circumspect confrontation between the film’s two antagonists, Emily Tetherow and their guide, Stephen Meek, Meek waxes philosophic on the war of the sexes:
Meek’s Cutoff undercuts this bombast, depicting most men as inept braggarts or dithering fools. We first see Stephen Meek crawling out of his teepee in a red union suit and buckskin jacket to the sound of buzzing flies, a bedraggled travesty of Wild Bill Hickock. He’s a gunslinger of bullshit, full of colorful bluster and milk-and-honey guarantees. He tells tall tales to children and only slightly less implausible stories to their elders: “You won’t want for riches,” he promises them about their destination. “Someday you just plunge your hands into the ground!”
The wisest man in the film, named Solomon, is distinguished by the trust he places in his wife Emily. Emily Tetherow is intelligent and decisive, second-guessing the men’s fumbling judgment under her breath. “We should never have left the main stem,” she mutters. “We shoulda taken on more [water] at the river.” After dark, in the privacy of their wagon, Solomon tells Emily the men suspect Stephen Meek might be paid to mislead American immigrants.
“It has a logic,” he admits.
“I suppose,” she snaps. “A broken one.” She’s exasperated by her husband’s “optimism” about their progress and halfhearted faith in Meek’s leadership. “I don’t blame him for not knowing,” she clarifies. “I blame him for saying he did.” It’s his hubristic certitude she despises, the empty pretense to expertise and authority. The first time we see a close-up of Emily, she is listening, visibly un-wowed, as Stephen Meek tells a child about a fight with a bear.
Emily is the first to see the Indian tracking them, standing on a ridge like a vision, as if her disillusionment with their ostensible leader has summoned a new guide. Stephen Meek is alarmed and tries to alarm the rest of the group, browbeating them with stories of the Cayuse Indians’ savagery and mercilessness: “I’ve seen ‘em strip the flesh off a man while he’s still breathin’,” he rhapsodizes. “I’ve seen ‘em cut a man’s eyelids off and bury him in the sand and leave him just starin’ at the sun.” There’s really no reason we should take these stories any more seriously than the one about Meek’s acquaintance who was scalped by a bear. Like certain other leaders who come readily to mind, Meek uses dubious atrocity stories and scare tactics to persuade his followers they’re surrounded by inhumanly cruel enemies from whom only he can protect them.
After they capture the Cayuse, the men try abuse and bribery to get him to lead them to water, but Emily takes him a cup of water and fixes a split in his moccasin. This isn’t sentiment so much as pragmatism: “I want him to owe me something,” she tells Lily. Emily isn’t some anachronistic heroine of p.c. cultural sensitivity.“You can’t even imagine the things we’ve done,” she tells their captive in scorn and wonderment, “the cities we’ve built.” But on some gut-empathetic level she also recognizes their captive’s humanity. We see her listening to him praying in the night. Theirs is the unwilling kinship of servitude. When Meek regales the settlers with a story about massacring unarmed Indians, she is unimpressed. “Vanity,” she pronounces. “That’s all I see.”
As their circumstances become increasingly desperate their journey ceases to be about some myth of opportunity and is purified into a struggle for survival, a sort of spiritual pilgrimage. We see Solomon and Emily casting their possessions overboard to lighten their load, family heirlooms become ballast. When a boy finds a bit of gold, the settlers “stake a claim,” leaving a post with a cloth tied around it to mark the spot; we see it receding from their point of view, a little stick lost in the vast sameness of the landscape, like a monument to the folly of Land, Possession and Treasure.
In the end their bid for fortune becomes a death march. We see a black vulture drifting overhead, biding its time. A settler falls, exhausted and dehydrated. The Cayuse sings a funeral chant over him. The other settlers look on not with the Christian contempt we’ve come to expect but a numb resignation that might be respect.
Then the party comes to a lone tree in a dell. The music shimmers with portent; it’s a dream landscape. In its last scene, like those of 2001, La Dolce Vita, or Barton Fink, Meek’s Cutoff shifts levels from the naturalistic to the overtly symbolic.
“A tree can’t grow without water,” says one of the men hopefully. And indeed the tree at first seems like a symbol of hope; Solomon holds a branch with berries tenderly in his hand, reminiscent of the branch the dove brought back after the flood. But the tree is also an eerily ambiguous image: only its lower half is alive and green; its upper branches are dead and bare. Is it an omen of salvation or ruin? Is the Indian leading them to water or a slaughter? “We’re close, but we don’t know what to,” says one settler. This is not just a story about one lost wagon train, but a parable about a dying civilization come to a moment of fateful choice, a fork in the road, like Curtis La Forche’s.
When someone appeals to him for advice, Stephen Meek says a bizarre and utterly unexpected thing:
He seems to speak with a voice and a wisdom not his own. His braggadocio is emptied out; Meek finally lives up to his name. The film’s title doesn’t refer to the place-name in Oregon or some movie-Western maneuver, but the point at which Stephen Meek’s power is revoked. After all his boasts and threats and promises, our patriarchal leader, having led us to the brink of extinction, has finally admitted failure, ceding his authority to those who’ve so far been kept subservient and voiceless: a woman, who’s assumed moral leadership of the party, and an aboriginal, who goes on ahead, little caring whether we follow. Those long relegated to the margins now assume center stage. Emily, in charge at last, debates her course, her face framed in the tree’s branches as she turns to look after the Cayuse. In a reverse shot we see him pausing to regard her impassively. The music and all other sound cuts out save for the soft tread of his footsteps as he turns and walks away from us, into an uncertain landscape. The open question posed by the film’s last images is: will we follow?