Many classic American Westerns aim for realism. Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff hits the mark. Reichardt’s Western follows three families on their journey across Oregon in 1845. Their trip proves treacherous when their guide–Stephen Meek, played by Bruce Greenwood–fails to lead them to their destination as promised and they must contend with the unknown. The film begins with water, and the crisis (because there seems to be no real climax) revolves around water; but ultimately, the nontraditional story focuses on the choices the characters make and the actions they take to survive.
In many ways Reichardt’s film reminds me of William Wellman’s Westward the Women (1951). It isn’t a romantic film that subverts the genre by making a subtle joke about herding women to marriage across the Western frontier. Instead, the similarity is in its aim to express the strength it took to live in this place at this time, particularly as a woman. Social norms, power dynamics, and cultural mythologies fall apart in Reichardt’s film–not a lone cowboy movie set in the post-Civil War period. It is about nineteenth-century families and the ways in which they were forced to change in order to survive. When the movie begins they are lost, and when it ends they are still lost, though they have hope. Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow is Reichardt’s hero; her heroic act is simple: choosing the unknown path, following the native man they found to the water they so desperately need.
Many Westerns romanticize the landscape, people, and stories of strength while others do the opposite, making vicious the romanticized image of the American West. Reichardt simply situates the audience in an experience. In the first scene, a river, wind through dry grass, crickets chirping, water poured into a pet bird’s cage, and a mule chewing its food all take over the soundtrack. The only sounds made by humans are footsteps in the grass and Paul Dano’s Thomas Gately carving ‘LOST’ into a dried log. It’s not a romantic picture of some Western adventure. It is uncertainty, a dull sense of fear, and the sense of being lost in this expanse. In this, the film’s audience experiences a true Western.