Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) is an independent, art-house, revisionist American Western that knowingly disrupts and questions the ideals and traditional elements of the classic Western that trapped women in limiting codes and conventions. The film unequivocally subverts classical cinema’s relationship with “the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle” (Mulvey, 1993 , p.111).
Women in Westerns have historically been “trivialized and degraded” (Tompkins, 1993, p.17), “meek and passive, modest and silent” (Mesce, 2001, p.81). Westerns “tell stories […] from the positions men occupy in the social structure, […] from the man’s point of view” (Tompkins, 1993, p.40). Reichardt, a feminist auteuse and academic, reimagines reality for the women on the Oregon Trail by actively overturning and remodelling the Western, “a genre [that is] uninterested in women at best, overtly misogynist at worst” (Studlar, 2001, p.43). The film places the experience of women as its focal point to revise the original mythology of the Wild West, giving us “the reverse shot of the genre as a whole” (Binding et al, 2014).
Reichardt investigates the historically authentic experience for women travelling west in a wagon train in 1845. Rooted in primary sources, through research of women’s diaries and archives, she re-presents the story of the Wild West from the women’s perspective:
Women were the diary keepers and the diaries offer such a specific take on the history […]. The exceptions seemed to be the friendships the women formed with each other. […] one woman [wrote] that she was keeping a diary in case her husband should ever want to know her (Press Notes, 2010, p.3).
In a purposeful re-framing of the male gaze, Reichardt asks “‘What would John Wayne’s character look like from [the perspective of] the woman that served his soup?’” (Mayer, 2016, p.111). Through the camera, the spectator is encouraged to look at the women much more than the men. The film is clearly interested in them, but the spectator is required to study the women in a different way; they are not connoting “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey, 1993 , 116). Conversely, Reichardt’s actors “avoid performing, attempting [to be] as naturalistic as possible” (Quart, 2011, p.40). The camera does not wander across the women’s bodies via segmented close-ups, enticing the onlooker to imagine how it might feel to touch them. However, the viewer is often invited to consider what the women characters – especially Emily - might be thinking about, through medium close-ups on their faces. Like the film, this analysis focuses on the character of Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) and directly addresses Mulvey’s gaze theory (1993 ).
In the first shot of all three women together, they are faceless, unidentifiable figures in diluted pastel colours, a beautifully composed moving image in long shot, that creates an aesthetic “distancing” (Morrison, 2010, p.42), with a backdrop of Graces’ ambient music suggesting the labour of their journey as they walk towards the static camera (see Fig. 1 below). The women trek wearisomely behind the men, hindered by long calico dresses and bonnets that cut off their peripheral view and ability to hear clearly, somehow imprisoned within the vast, barren landscape, the caged bird carried with them a metaphor for their lives. Reichardt echoes this motif in her decision to use the standard Academy square 4:3 aspect ratio, which literally cuts off the conventional wide-screen format used in many Westerns that might generically indicate the male hero’s symbiotic relationship with the wilderness. This restriction in their and the spectator’s view adds to the uncertainty of the route Meek ‘navigates’ on their relentless journey, in contrast for instance to Ethan Edward’s (John Wayne) intrepid mastery of the vast prairie in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956).
As opposed to a linear, active, ‘masculine’ syntax, Reichardt employs “a feminine language […] more open, [with] multiplicities of meanings” (Kuhn, 1994, p.11). Glory White (Shirley Henderson) twice asks the other women “what are [the men] talking about?”. We regularly see the men standing around and talking at a distance in static wide shot, illustrating their separateness from the women. The unintelligible plans of the male group are mediated through the women’s perspective, as in the first few frames of the film, when the men can only just be heard on the other side of the river. This is political for Reichardt. Director Sally Potter observes (2011, p.14): “Point of view is usually only conspicuous when it is oppositional. The dominant, prevailing point of view remains invisible or apparently neutral and objective”. Neither the viewer nor the women can hear clearly what potentially life threatening decisions are being made: “While the women do what has to be done, the men discuss and decide on the direction to take” (Reichardt in Quart, 2011, p.41).
Laura Mulvey wrote at length about the kind of feminist cinema she thought would be sufficient to contend with patriarchal cinema: what a feminist avant-garde cinema might need to do to “construct a new language of cinema” (2009 , p.123). Meek’s Cutoff is not quite avant-garde but Reichardt feels “alienated from mainstream filmmaking” (Reichardt in Quart 2011, p.42). Reichardt has focused on “the matter of film language itself, probing dislocation between cinematic form and cinematic material” (Mulvey, 2009 , p.123). Meek’s Cutoff is slow, art-cinema: ambiguous, minimalist, observational, with silence, pared-down music and narrative and “psychologically complex characters” (Bordwell, 2002, p.718). Lingering on landscape to allow the spectator space for contemplation, the journey is apparently never-ending: you “get the sense that the diaries are the only thing besides the weather that mark the passing of time” (Press Notes, 2010, p.3). This sense of time passing is expressed through intricately considered, monotonous chores that are the women’s duties. This “diffuse temporality” notes Mayer “sets Reichardt’s film apart from the majority of action-oriented westerns” (2016, p.112). Reichardt’s film is not classical in its textual properties. Very little happens: in terms of character arcs and a dramatic arc, it is purposefully subdued, capturing a well-documented moment in history, in the middle of a story, and in the middle of a journey, rather than providing an imagined, generic overview of the Oregon Trail that might “[imply] the migration path taken by thousands of settlers in the nineteenth century” such as in The Way West (Morrison, 2010, p.42). The film seems to ‘want’ to alienate anyone who would expect conventional pleasures, especially those associated with the genre, but also those associated with art cinema. It is a dismissal of the generic emphasis on display and “technological progress” (Mayer, 2016, p.54). It is a film with “many refusals” (Morrison, 2011, p.43).
Instead, you have to adjust your expectations to what the film is prepared to offer: a long, subtle, slowly developing exploration of power dynamics and interpersonal relationships in the arid plains of the American desert. The real-life Meek (Bruce Greenwood), “a blundering bully who took credit for others’ work” (Mayer, 2016, p.111) in the event of the “Lost Wagon Train of 1845”, was hired by over 1,000 people to guide them through a dangerous ‘short-cut’ west (Quart, 2011). Reichardt condenses the train down to three families. Unlike the male protagonist of classical cinema “free to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action” (Mulvey, 1993 , p.118), Meek is an anti-hero. He does not direct the gaze, nor is he the pivot of the film. Meek embodies the long-established attitudes - but not the prowess - of the mythical male hero in Westerns, particularly with regard to his stance on the Cayuse, with whom he tries to “assert [his] gender specific domination […] through sadomasochistic activity” (Studlar, 2001, p.44).
Meek is far from the “main controlling figure with whom the spectator can identify” (Mulvey, 1993 , p.116). It is through Emily that the spectator is given insight. The audience is ‘properly’ introduced to Emily as she rigorously cleans out a bowl: with a high-angle shot of her squatting on a rock, the spectator has no view of her cleavage or even her chest, her body completely covered but for her hands. The activity of cleaning is foregrounded (see Fig. 2 below). The first time the camera focuses on Emily’s face, is a 23-second, medium close-up of her walking purposefully, the soundtrack to the shot a mumbled, bombastic account of Meek’s ‘bravado’. With subtle disapproval, her look influences the spectator to take an early view of Meek’s character. Emily’s relationship with her husband Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) is the most mutually respectful of the husband and wife relationships. Solomon discusses the men’s concerns about Meek with her:
Meek: Well now I think you’re flirting with me ma’am.
Reichardt has created an “alternative cinema” that works in counterpoint to the male gaze of classical Hollywood (Mulvey, 1993 , p.113). To examine this juxtaposition, a short analysis of two scenes of ‘girls with guns’ follows. In the classic epic Western Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946), Pearl is coded and sexualised for male titillation and overtly connoting “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey 1993 , p.116). She wears red lipstick, a red skirt, a flowing red scarf. Raising a gun to Lewt, as the bullet hits him she dramatically breaks down. We see her face in extreme-close-up inciting the male viewer to imagine being that close to Pearl. High angle shots emphasise her breasts as the camera invites the male viewer to focus on her tight black blouse. She flings her entire body against a rock, performing emotion. The music is heightened and the moment artificial (see Fig. 3).
Pearl is a victim of her emotions. Emily is not. She is in control. It is a deliberately “unheightened moment” (Reichardt in Quart, 2010, p.41). No shots are fired. The hand-held camera invites the viewer to focus on medium close-up reaction shots of the party suggesting the destabilising effect this moment has had on the group. None of the men challenge Emily’s authority. Her movements are minimal, about survival. The spectator is never enticed by an extreme-close-up of Emily, as we are with Pearl, but forced to engage with her as a woman of agency. She is leading the action. Emily seizes ownership of the symbolic phallus, perhaps invoking castration anxiety in both Meek and the male viewer, threatening “to evoke the anxiety it originally signified” (Mulvey, 1993 , p.119). Although Emily is the only character who actually shoots a gun when she loads a rifle expertly to alert the group to the Indian’s arrival, she does not use it as “a tool for conquest” (tieman64, 2013). As Meek aims at the Cayuse and Emily points her gun at Meek, it is reminiscent of a Mexican stand-off, except the Indian has no rifle and the camera is not still. There is no intense music, instead we hear ambient sounds of buzzing insects. There are no extreme close-ups on the guns cutting to extreme-close-ups on snarling facial expressions, or fast edits contrasted with slow motion hands moving to weapons. No one gets killed. The scene is realistic and authentic.
Although Reichardt works hard to disallow us from reading Emily’s use of a gun as a resort to patriarchal power, and although this moment in the film comes at a time in which it is powerfully obvious that we are not watching commercial entertainment, the inclusion of this scene ultimately endorses Goddard’s sentiments and Emily becomes a fetishised phallic woman. Perhaps an offscreen Ibsenesque event might have lent the scene more potency. The viewer already understands that Emily is pivotal. Her words and sagacity would have served to dissuade Meek from shooting the Cayuse. Her earlier questioning of Meek that represent the unspoken feelings of the group and her calm and resolute demeanour is what renders Emily truly powerful in this film, the use of her intellect far outweighing in potency the wielding of a heavily loaded weapon. Finally however, the message is clear: Emily’s use of the gun dilutes, but does not negate, the significance of Reichardt’s revisionist project.
The most telling part of the story is in the final scenes, where Meek says that he no longer even pretends to lead. He is following the Tetherows: “This was written long before we got here. We are all just playing our parts” says Meek. Brechtian in essence, this device, whilst reminding the audience that we are watching a film, brings the activity to a standstill (Morrison, 2010, p.43). Whereas in classical cinema, the woman’s role is to disrupt narrative, it is Meek’s presence that “work[s] against the development of [the] story-line, to freeze the flow of action” (Mulvey, 1993 , p.116). The camera grants Emily the final decision as, framed from within the branches of a tree, her gaze leads the spectator to follow the Indian as he walks away, suggesting the group’s choice (see Fig. 5 below). In employing art cinema strategies such as non-linearity, non-activity, “uncoding, de-coding, deconstructing [and] de-familiarization” (Doane, 1981, p.24) related to feminine or feminist syntax, there is an intentional “absence of closure” (Kuhn, 1994, p.222). Reichardt offers a deliberately ambiguous ending, playfully ‘cutting off’ the story and challenging us to employ our intellect to fill in the gaps and create what happens next by “piecing together fragments of the story” (Kuhn, 1994, p.165).
Fundamentally, Meek’s Cutoff reclaims masculine territory: Emily asserts power as an individual in her restricted context, and symbolically Reichardt reclaims a power for women who have been disempowered by a historically patriarchal, dominant genre, ensuring “the careful work of feminist archivists, theorists, historians and artists is [not] neglected, devalued [or] obscured” (Mayer, 2016, p.113). The film is refreshing, political and important: “In many ways it is this exploration of “invisible” politics, […] challenging entrenched perceptions of how the world “is” [that] can contribute to the business of changing it” (Potter, 2011, p.14).
Meek’s Cutoff requires active participation of a different kind from Mulvey’s voyeuristic objectification or narcissist identification (1993 , p.114): “Here, at last, the demands of women can have a determining effect on aesthetics, as the work of feminist film theorists and film-makers gains strength and influence” (Mulvey, 2009 , p.130). In an “unheightened moment” (Reichardt in Quart, 2011, p.41) Reichardt also raises her gun: in an indelible remodelling of the Western hero, she takes a direct aim at the male gaze.