This is one of the texts featured in the book "Kelly Reichardt: Textur #2" (2020) edited by James Lattimer and Eva Sangiorgi and published by the Vienna International Film Festival to celebrate Kelly Reichardt’s long history with the festival, where First Cow also screens this year. Textur is an ongoing publication series that embraces simplicity, heterogeneity, and sensation in exploring the work of filmmakers admired by the Viennale.
Meek’s Cutoff tells the tale of the struggle of a meager wagon train of settlers traveling west. Destination is the Willamette Valley of Oregon, with the question remaining at the end of the film as to whether they arrive or not. Many a woeful day is spent trudging on foot alongside the wagon, without water in a dry, forbidding territory. We track the tired eyes of the pioneers as they scan the distant horizon for meaningful clues, knowing full well what emptiness lies ahead. In the desert you can see tomorrow and the next day. Carved into a piece of wood is a desperate plea to no one in particular, the word LOST.
What resources, wisdom or resilience do these characters, based on lives gleaned from historical record, need to meet the challenges of survival and what do any people, in today’s puzzling world of politics and culture, need not to be LOST? One of the many gifts of the film is its faithfulness to 1845, specifically drawn in the details, that encourage us to transpose the conditions to the present day through the film’s carefully articulated metaphors. Today, as we wander in the existential wilderness of information flow, deflecting the destructive policies of untrustworthy leaders, we struggle, as did they of 1845, with our skills of decision making, trust, clear headedness, and commitment to essential values.
The mythic themes of the Western - blind optimism and faith, swagger and conquest - are fully formed in Meek’s Cutoff and in many ways consistent with what we look for in a Western, but here they act in service to the women of the film. The myths are brought down to earth through the rhythm and repetition of the women’s chores and domestic tasks. Three women as the three graces, in their pastel calico dresses, their hands always busy working. They are the motor that drives the caravan. Sometimes in patient and calm steadfastness, often in anxiety, occasionally in fierce silent judgement, they grind coffee, gather kindling, scrub clothes clean, and, in Emily’s case, load and fire a musket. The women wear hooded sun bonnets with a front brim that only allows them to see directly in front. Undistracted by peripheral vision, the women are uniquely focused to see what’s ahead. They provide us an honest perspective on the West, a necessary alignment as the group stumbles forward into the unknown.