Meek's Cutoff is an arduous trek through purgatory, the cracked and arid plane of reality separating the paradise a group of Oregon settlers seek to find and the hell to which they seem hopelessly destined. When the travelers change altitude on the bleached-bone plains of the Oregon High Desert, they always seem to go down, down, down deeper into this unforgiving pit of land. The expedition's guide, Stephen Meek (played by Bruce Greenwood, though you won't know it until you see his name in the credits), foretells the contents of hell, warning that it is full of bears, Indians and mountains. But those always seem to be just outside the frame, suggesting that they will fall into the bottomless maw of fire and pain at any second.
Of course, purgatory itself is a punishment meant to cleanse its prisoners of sin, and Kelly Reichardt opens her film with mood-establishing shots that set a tone of repetitive, grueling labor meant to deliver the three families (Will Patton/Michelle Williams, Paul Dano/Zoe Kazan, Neal Huff/Shirley Henderson) to their Eden. Long, static shots show the settlers moving across a river, descending down the sloping riverbed as if being swallowed at the start. Later, this vaguely disturbing scene will seem idyllic as the party moves further and further away from the fresh water they waded through to continue their journey west. Already, the seeds of dissolution, resentment and panic are setting in: before heading on with a few barrels of water to last them, one man carves "Lost" into a fallen tree nearby.
That simple message communicates the dwindling faith the party has in their leader, who brags all day about glorious deeds and his assurances of a better life awaiting them, only to get the wagon trail in more desolate lands. Meek is an imposing presence, a hulking grizzly of a man with matted hair, full beard and incomprehensible gruff, but set against the infinite desert of Oregon Country, even he seems small at times. When the travelers capture an Indian and debates killing him or using him to find water as supplies run dangerously low, Meek finds himself even further distanced from an increasingly hostile party who find themselves more willing to follow a potentially scheming prisoner who cannot communicate with them than the rugged mountain man who failed them.
Some have described Reichardt's film as a feminist Western, which is true in some respects but misleading. The women, one of whom has a young child and is pregnant with another, are brought along on this fool's errand by the men who insisted they'd be making a better life for them, and now they must press on just to survive. In her wide, horizontal panoramas of the desert (the camera always tilted slightly downward to further enhance the emptiness of the front plane), Reichardt almost always places the women behind the men. Long shots of the men debating courses of action are accompanied with muffled sound, a distraction until one realizes that these are POV shots of the women standing by waiting for their husbands to return with instruction. When Patton and Meek hold a vote over the Indian's fate, the women get no say.
Yet Reichardt never gives in to easy moralizing. When Meek states that women embody chaos while men embody destruction, his tone of voice communicates chauvinism, but the fact that he attributes negative qualities to both genders instead of glorifying men or beatifying women suggests a moral compromise that runs through everyone. The women never mesh with the environment around them, their bright dresses, even when caked in dust and dirt, always marking them as freakish within the director's dour mise-en-scène. Williams initially seems a figure of grace when she acts with kindness toward the Indian, but when Kazan asks why she's bothering to sew up the man's broken moccasin, Williams replies flatly, "I want him to owe me something." It's almost as if, despite the 1845 setting, she's seen the movies showing this sort of story and plans ahead to save her skin in case things go awry.
Her reasoning points to the moral complexity of the film as a whole, one that leads neither to lesson-learning consideration shown to natives nor grisly rapprochement for Manifest Destiny and white paternalism. A grim sense of fate hangs over the film, maintaining a level of suspense punctuated by the mounting horror that, regardless of what happens to this isolated band of characters, the implications of their senseless, cruel journey will be visited on the region as a whole before America finally claims all the continent it can.
That sense of loss and cosmic harshness pervades the party's journey. To lighten the load, families must dump nonessential items from wagons already containing that with which each family would not part. A makeshift iris shot out the back of the canvas wagon frames a family heirloom dropped unceremoniously into the dirt to be forgotten. Later, the child discovers an area filled with gold, but the settlers must keep going to find water and civilization first, so they leave an almost comically useless marker out in the middle of nowhere to return to it in better days. Only once after the initial shots at the river do the travelers come across water, but its undrinkable, teasing the desperate settlers like the ocean around the ancient mariner's ship.
The word "poetic" gets thrown around too often when most of the time people just mean "pretty," and Meek's Cutoff is not poetic. It is, however, terrible and beautiful, realistic but not realist in all its limiting rules. Reichardt's previous films displayed emotions so keenly felt that the plight of one struggling yuppie and her dog could be as moving as the most shameless tear-jerker, and a damn sight more honest. But here, she demonstrates a capacity for thoughtful, careful composition that makes the film as much a formal achievement as it is an allegorical one.
The film's utter lack of dénouement, perhaps even falling action, may vex some, but one should keep in mind its setting: Oregon Country in 1845 was itself in a purgatorial state between independence and incorporation into America and Canada along the 49th Parallel. The land in which this story takes place is unfinished and pulled in ambiguous directions, a realm illuminated and left dark by an ambivalent Virgil who does not speak the same language as his dependents. If Dead Man is the ultimate display of the West as hell, Meek's Cutoff may be the quintessential view of the West as a place of perpetual displacement and transition, though its dubious movement tends to lead in the direction of hell instead of heaven.