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Meek's Cutoff

SPOILERS BELOW: The last paragraph references the final image of the film.

Like the barren landscape these hopelessly lost America settler’s wander across, Meek’s Cutoff is a film stripped so clean of anything that is not essential, that the persistent squeak of a wagon wheel becomes a central player in its cast of characters. Chirping incessantly away in the background, it is a noise that quietly keeps reminding everyone it needs tending to. If only to get it to stop. If only to put an end to its reminder that it is still turning, but not towards anywhere in particular.

It haunts the film, all but ignored. But always there. It lingers at the back of this pack of travelers where Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) walks with the other women, trailing the men who lead this seemingly doomed expedition. It is a fitting companion for her. Just barely audible beneath the clattering bother of covered wagons and horse hooves, it lives quietly in the space where Emily’s growingly frustrated thoughts are slowly being given voice. As she speaks, her words will be reluctant, but stern, Increasingly frustrated at not being heard. Muttered plainly to her husband as the stream of tall tales being spewed forth by the man responsible for their troubles keeps everyone’s attention hostage. Away from her. Away from her concern they are going nowhere.

Emily clearly blames all of the men to some degree for their predicament. But none more than Stephen Meek, the man they hired as their guide. He speaks as if he is a man who has seen all sorts of wild things in such a wasteland as this, and has learned great and ancient wisdoms from each of these experiences. He knows where he is going, he assures. But there is something about the manner of his speech that gives him the appearance that he is always on the verge of becoming lost while in the middle of his boasts. That these stories he tells, are becoming as difficult to orient himself in as this landscape he has been paid to lead these families safely across. There seems to be a sense emitted from him that all they will need in order to survive this ordeal, is to just sit tight and bask in awareness of what a fascinating and completely competent man he is.

Out of foolishly misplaced faith, or possibly just politeness, her husband and the rest of these men consistently defer to the authority of Meek. And helpless, Emily can only stay back and watch with the other women, who at the end of a long day often resign the use of their hands to little more than their knitting. While we always can sense the ever-present terror of the situation, perilously close to starving and thirsting to death, trying to survive in a hostile territory filled with (supposedly) vicious Paiute Indians, it will be the story of these women which allow us to see there are layers to this ordeal. Tiers to the misfortune they are reckoning with. For the women this is not simply about facing their mortality. It is also the story of them obediently following these men towards it, with no hand to lend whatsoever towards their own fates.

This is what will lend the final leg of the film such a sense of quiet desperation. After capturing a Native who they suspect of following them with nefarious intent, while men such as Meek urge executing him immediately, Emily is forced to view him as possibly her only hope. Simply by virtue that he is another man, maybe she can get the hapless husbands in her party to find faith in his knowledge of the land and usurp the entirely useless Meek. After they share a long stare, possibly the only direct eye contact she will receive from anyone in the film, Emily pushes all of her chips in on someone who may or may not be an even greater threat to them than withering away under the unforgiving sun.

There will never be any clear sign to the audience that the choice Emily has made is the correct one. The native will prove to be a complete cypher. He cannot communicate with any of them and is often found speaking an indecipherable dialect to himself. His behavior opens up all sorts of questions as to his intent, if he is possibly leading others from his Tribe onto their scent or wishes to do violent things to them at night while they sleep. Even his appearance confounds our expectations of what an original American is supposed to look like in such a film. He is neither presented as a noble, handsome warrior, who we could even suspect Emily harbors an interest in beyond saving her. Nor does he seem to be any kind of indominatable or violent force that will need to be reckoned with. He is balding and with bad posture, carrying with him an expression of neither fear, empathy nor hostility. If any emotion can be found in the lined features of his face, it is one of exhaustion, maybe irritation, not at all dissimilar to the expression worn by Emily through much of the film.

In the end, the film will conclude with the image of a strange tree which the Native has led them to. Like him, it is neither a symbol of hope nor despair. Depending on how we want to view it, somewhat slouched over with half of its branches in full bloom, the other half withered and brittle, it is either half dead, or half alive. It just stands there, yet another something for them to cling to. And, in many ways, it is almost beside the point whether these settlers ultimately survive. The movie is instead about Emily’s decision and how one gets to the point where such a surly and slovenly figure of a man, portrayed neither as hero nor villain, can become the final ledge for the fingernails of Emily’s hope to cling to. To give any sense of closure would be to cheat on the central anxiety and outrage that exists at the center of the film. To make its point well, it needs to just keep turning and turning in the minds of the audience long after it ends, quietly squeaking away just loud enough so we never quite completely forget it. But never quite bothersome enough that we ever really do anything about it.