#52FILMSBYWOMEN is a campaign launched by Women In Film in an attempt to raise awareness of female filmmakers. Their initiative asks cinephiles to watch a female-directed film once a week for an entire year, and in this series I will document the films I watched as a part of this pledge.
How rare is it to not only watch a western directed by a woman, but to watch a western in which the women are integral and not just background scenery or ‘damsels in distresses’? Kelly Reichardt’s typically restrained drama is another entry into the ever-evolving western genre, but its unglamorous depiction of the old American west and assumption of the female gaze distinguishes it from most existing counterparts.
Set in 1845, the film follows a small band of settlers as they attempt to make their way along the trecherous Oregon Trail. The group are led by the gruff Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who claims to know of an apparent shortcut, but as the days extend into weeks, the party members, including the perceptive Emily Tetherow (played by the mesmeric Michelle Williams) and her husband Solomon (Will Patton), begin to question the validity of their guide. With no end in sight, the gravity of their hopeless situation gradually befalls them, but their journey takes a sudden twist when they encounter and capture a rogue scout (Rod Rondeaux) from the Cayuse tribe. Meek’s initial impulse is to pull the trigger, but with the fear they may be lost and resources quickly dwindling, they soon come to realisation that he may actually be their best chance for survival.
Meek’s Cutoff, the third feature in Reichardt’s informally dubbed ‘Oregon Trilogy’ following Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, abandons the mythos of the robust gunslinging cowboy commonly associated with the genre in favour of a sombre, realistic depiction of journeying pioneers lost in the arid, desolate wilderness. Its plaintive tone is perfectly exemplified in its one solitary moment of gunfire, knowingly punctuated with a long silence between gunshots as the rifle is hurriedly but meticulous reloaded.
Reichardt’s hushed portrayal of societal outsiders in isolated spaces is minimalist and intimate by design – it’s an approach that’s never been absent from the director’s repertoire, but the gorgeous imagery of the dusty, rocky terrain against the washed out sky makes for a more obviously attractive picture. This helped by the decision to shoot in the classic Academy ratio, restricting the view of the panoramic vistas to create a more appropriately claustrophobic frame as if viewed from Emily’s constrictive bonnet.
With only some of the echoes of John Ford, Reichardt’s managed to produce a distinct, haunting female-centric western. In a world in which multiplexes are dominated by overtly masculine adventure stories, Meek’s Cutoff is the perfect antidote, demonstrating the power of subtlety, patience and ambiguity.