Meek’s Cutoff

I will never do anything as impressive as crossing this country in a covered wagon. I will never achieve that level of human existence. I will never be that much of a man or woman.

My great-great-grandparents were those sorts of people. They actually traveled West in a covered wagon. My grandmother uses the yokes from their mule team to hang plants on her front porch. The bows that once supported the stretched canvas of their wagon now supports an old quilt on my grandmother’s wall. I look at those relics of my ancestors’ migration and wonder if I am a credit to their legacy. I hope I am.
Meek’s Cutoff follows a group of westward migrators across the desert of eastern Oregon. They have taken the advice of their guide, the title’s Meek, in an effort to shortcut to the fertile valleys further on. The shortcut quickly becomes anything but, as shortcuts are prone to do, and the three families begin to run short on water. They are also being tracked, it seems, by at least one Native American. Tempers are short.
Meek’s Cutoff is a claustrophobic film about a harrowing expanse. The story focuses primarily on the matriarchs of the three families. The women wear large, curve-brimmed bonnets to protect themselves from the sun and wind. The film is shot in 1.33:1 aspect ratio (like an old TV), mirroring the limited sight lines of the women in their bonnets. True to the time, the men make all the explicit decisions for the group. The women stand distant and watch their husbands converse. Only quietly to each other and a bit more vocally to their respective husbands each night in the privacy of their tents do the women express their opinions.
The most powerful scene in the movie (which is depicted in the film’s poster) is when one of the women makes a very public stand in the interest of another traveler. This moment is striking, because it is the only instance of forceful, open opinion exhibited by any of the women in the film. Mostly, they exhibit the quiet, unrelenting strength of a segment of society kept out of the formal decision making processes.
I enjoyed this film immensely. It is a quiet film full of lingering shots of the small wagon train crossing the endless desert. The audience experiences the grit and grind of survival on the hard journey West. One can almost feel the cold of the night and the heat of day, the hardness of the ground and the never ending emptiness of the cloudless sky. Thirst is one of the most effective maladies to portray in film, I always think, because each of us is ever only a few hours from dryness. Not since Harry Dean Stanton stumbled through the Texas desert in Paris, Texas have I felt so empathetically thirsty watching a film.
Meek’s Cutoff isn’t a tidy film either. I found the ending strikingly satisfying and effective, but there will be those who are annoyed and disappointed. In my opinion though, this film couldn’t end any other way.
This is a film concerned with questions of trust. These pioneers have chosen to trust the word of their guide, and their trust seems to be unfounded. Faced with this seeming betrayal, they are each forced to decide whom or what to trust as they continue on. Some trust each other, some trust themselves, others trust gods or fate, and others trust no one at all. In every case though, it is their trust or lack of it that pushes them each onward along the trail. It is trust that binds them together. It is trust that sustains. A lack of trust threatens to destroy them even more so than the heat.
As I watched, I thought about the significant relationships in my life. I considered how at some point in each of them, there was a moment of decided trust. I leapt into their arms believing they would support me and love me, and since then, each moment of shared friendship has been a recapitulation of that trust. They moment by moment leap into my arms as well.
I do not know the details of my ancestors’ covered wagon crossing of the frontier, but I’m sure it was not easy. Like the families in Meek’s Cutoff, I’m sure my family had to daily decide whom to trust as they journeyed West. I’m glad they trusted each other to make it to Texas and to make a way for my existence.