Meek's Cutoff, like all of director Kelly Reichardt's previous features (River of Grass, Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy), is essentially a road movie about both the unequal distribution of power and resources and the frustrations of the disenfranchised. Tracking three hungry and thirsty families on the long wagon journey from Missouri to Oregon in the mid-19th century who are lost because of the poor navigational skills of their wildman hired guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the film is based on extensive research by Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond. They adapted many details from the journals of women who trekked with the real-life Meek, who disastrously led a splinter group off the Oregon Trail.
"Meek was perceived in different ways by different people, but definitely was thought of as someone who didn't know what he was doing by pretty much everyone," Reichardt says, sharing a couch in a Williamsburg production office with her dog, Lucy, co-star and co-namesake of her last feature. Meek's own 14-page autobiography, she explains, wasn't much help: "Ten pages is this long-winded joke, and then he's just like, 'I led the first wagon train through Oregon territory. Completely successful.' Probably just like George W. Bush's new book: 'Everything went great. Not to worry.'"
Meek's Cutoff is set in 1845, the same year Margaret Fuller published her foundational feminist text Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Fuller, a dedicated transcendentalist who advocated female self-reliance and equality between spouses, wrote that the highest form of marriage constituted a "pilgrimage towards a common shrine."
Fuller's notions are manifest in Meek's female lead, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), the tough and determined wife of the party's captain, Soloman. Extraordinarily self-sufficient compared with the other women on the journey (played by Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan), Emily enjoys enough parity with her husband that he gives her recaps of the tense debates among the men. And she's the only member of the party bold enough to articulate everyone's fear concerning Meek: "Is he ignorant? Or is he just plain evil?"
Reichardt's film has been called a revisionist Western because of its emphasis on women and the empathy shown for an Indian (Rod Rondeaux) rather than the cowboy Meek. But the director's interest in dismantling the conventions of the genre goes further than simply swapping one perspective for another.
"The Western as we've come to know it is so much about these exploding, heightened moments. And then you read these women's journals and you're like, 'Oh, it's like a trance!' [They're] really a list of chores," Reichardt explains. "'Built the fire, popped the tent, made the bread, walked eight miles.' It's the opposite of heightened moments. It's about monotony and labor, one day melting into the next." To underscore the settlers' disassociation from time and space, Reichardt uses long, slow dissolves as they endlessly trudge across terrain that all looks the same.
The women's perception of the landscape is constrained by their bonnets, which are large enough to cover their ears and block out peripheral vision. Reichardt shot the film in the square, 1.33:1 aspect ratio to replicate this limited perspective and to heighten the sense of claustrophobic immediacy. "Jon would put in the script, 'And then they're surprised by...' And I'm like, 'Jon, what surprise? Standing in the desert, I can see for 40 miles. I can be shocked by nothing.' So how do you create this space where you could still come upon something [unexpected]? The square helped me with that — you wouldn't see tomorrow or yesterday in the shot."
Meek's is Reichardt's largest-scale project to date. "Compared to the last movie that we made," says Williams, referring to 2008's Wendy and Lucy, in which she also starred, "we were rolling in cash! But there was so much more for it to cover." The low-budget shoot was almost as grueling and resource-challenged as the journey it depicted. "The desert is the great equalizer," Reichardt notes wryly. Cast and crew all stayed at the Horseshoe Motel in Burns, Ore., a two-hour drive on dusty, unpaved roads from the film's desolate locations. "If you're Bruce Greenwood, you're staying in the same kind of room as the driver who's working on a film for the first time," she adds.
Even though the crew members struggled to make do with very little, they were still injecting money into an even more dire economy in the business- and industry-deficient Burns — population 3,020. "I thought, What will it be like going to this little Republican town?" Reichardt recalls. Yet instead of small-town smallmindedness, the production was warmly greeted. "There was really high unemployment, and we were able to hire locals, like ranchers and auto repairmen."
The interrelated struggles of the movie's characters, its cast and crew, and the locals who supported the production — most of whom claimed to be descendants of the members of the real Meek party — call to mind Jacques Rivette's observation that every film is a documentary of its own making. Essentially, the people of Burns were helping Reichardt's crew make a feature about their own past that also, politically and economically, reflects the struggles of the present, not only in their town but also in the realm of microbudgeted film.
But as much as the limitations of the shoot may have contributed a sense of realism to the finished product, "it doesn't need to be quite as hard," Reichardt says. "I don't want to make another film as stretched as we were."
The title Meek's Cutoff becomes almost literal in its last scene, when the arrogant guide's power is apparently curtailed, the dominance of the American cowboy upended. The moment offers such a bold punctuation to the film's foundational ideas that it's surprising to hear that it came together at the last minute, when the production ran out of money. "I would like it so that, if the sun's going to set, you're not going home without the ending of your movie," Reichardt says. "[But that's] basically what happened to us: The sun went down, everyone was leaving the next day, and we couldn't afford the animals another day. So a new ending had to be constructed. Michelle, Rod, and I went back with a five-person crew and shot it."
The compromises necessitated by financial constraints have been a theme in both Reichardt's films and her own career trajectory. She recalls the frustrations that followed her breakout at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, where River of Grass premiered alongside Kevin Smith's Clerks and David O. Russell's Spanking the Monkey — films that turned those two directors into hot commodities. But Reichardt says "the door wasn't open" to her in the same way. More than a decade passed between River of Grass and Old Joy (2006), during which time she taught and made experimental shorts. She still makes her living teaching at Bard College.
"It feels like the kind of thing I'm doing — shooting film, projecting in theaters — is a sinking ship, for sure," the maverick filmmaker says. But she finds some consolation when she returns to the idea of duress as a leveler: "However it's going to change, maybe the bright side of that is that it'll be an equalizer. It'll bring in more voices, more variety."