Meek’s Cutoff (2010) is a beautifully-shot film in which characters follow the Oregon Trail. On the surface it sounds like a standard wagon western, like Stagecoach (1939) or Red River (1948), but it couldn’t be more different.
The classic wagon western typically involves a diverse group of strangers in an uneasy alliance, with a few strong and conflicting personalities among them. They face a series of obstacles, eventually surmounting them, and in the process they resolve their internal strife, to successfully reach a well-defined goal. Their problems are as predictable as the plot:
- They’re in uncharted territory. They get lost.
- They lose property or run out of supplies, with the threat of starvation or dying of thirst, for a variety of reasons: animals die, flee, or stampede, food spoils, bandits rob them, weather or accidents destroy things, or sometimes they just didn’t bring enough stuff. But shortage of provisions is typical.
- There’s an inevitable clash with Native Americans, usually depicted in an unambiguously racist way as savages and villains out for blood or loot. Often there are outlaws (i.e. white antagonists) as well.
- Natural obstacles stand in the way: mountains to climb, rivers to ford, desert to trek, or enemy territory to traverse.
- The above challenges result in the sickness, injury, death, or flight of at least of a few of the characters, and the suffering or loss of these people demoralizes the rest of the group.
- All these problems cause internal conflicts. Often the one in charge is the antagonist, tyrannical, insistent, and dead wrong, but with a strong protagonist who bravely dissents. Alternatively, the one in charge is the protagonist who believes (against all odds) that they can complete the journey, despite the fear or grumblings of his group, lead by a particularly pessimistic or rebellious antagonist. Either way, the two normally fight it out.
Despite all this, after a few get picked off, the motley group of characters will overcome their differences, triumphantly complete their journey, then sell cattle, start farming, or whatever it is they wanted to do. This may sound dismissive, but for example Red River is an incredible film.1 Adhering to conventions no more ruins a film than reversing them makes a great film—there are good and bad films at both ends of the spectrum. But it helps to understand the features of formulaic films in order to see how the genre has evolved.
Revisionist Westerns of the ’60s and ’70s subverted some of the obvious problems in the older westerns, often challenging either their racist treatment of minorities or their un-nuanced view of (violent) masculine heroism. But these films are still normally quite action-packed and feature fairly comprehensible morality. Meek’s Cutoff is a sort of post-revisionist Western, in that it is neither eventful nor moralistic. In the classic and revisionist westerns, uncertainty contributes to cycles of suspense, but is overcome in the end. In this film, the uncertainty is totally and paralysingly insurmountable. This represents the diametric opposite of the dramatic string of events and increasingly difficult challenges faced in the more classic westerns. It also emphasizes that there may be (and frequently is) no solution to the problems faced by settlers. Unlike the revisionist western, which takes the opposite side of the traditional western, Meek’s Cutoff makes all sides meaningless, and focuses instead on the characters’ uncertainty and mutual distrust. In addition to this psychological side, it’s also realistic in its focus on the unbelievable size of the country, the length of time it took to cross huge distances on foot,2 the difficulty of making decisions in absence of any dependable knowledge, and the uncertainty of survival.
That’s not to say this is a perfect film. The performances are unexceptional. The medium to long shots, though they beautifully emphasize the landscape, also make the characters virtually indistinguishable. It is slow, which will put many people off. But I appreciated it as a view of the west, because life must have been excruciatingly uncertain and uneventful on the frontier. The west wasn’t always wild, even when one had ostensibly set out on adventure.
Along with film noir, westerns are one of the uniquely American contributions to cinema. As genres, the classic and revisionist westerns are even more criminally underrated than classic and neo-noir. The remake of True Grit (also 2010) and Meek’s Cutoff are both innovative, realist westerns, quite different from their cinematic forebears—though True Grit doesn’t follow realism so far as to forsake narrative complication. I’ve not seen some of the big budget westerns made since these two came out (Django Unchained, The Lone Ranger) but I hope the genre makes a serious comeback, especially in interesting, independent films like this one, in addition to the inevitable pandering to the lowest common denominator at the box office. ★★★☆☆