The ending of Meek’s Cutoff will be looked at in some depth in this piece. There is almost no point in writing about Meek’s Cutoff without discussing the ending. Therefore, this article should be looked at as an approach to interpreting the film rather than a regular review. If You want to see Meek’s Cutoff based on the trailer or on Kelly Reichardt’s other films – Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy – then you should just read the first paragraph of this article and skip the rest.
If you should go into Meek’s Cutoff expecting narrative satisfaction and closure, you will be severely disappointed. Director Kelly Reichardt does an expert job of building up story tensions for the first 99% of the film and then she let’s the bottom drop out in a major way. We are drawn into a story with ever-increasing stakes and limited possibilities only have it just sort of stop…sort of. When I saw the film, a fellow audience member audibly gasped in frustration at the ending, and I imagine that she’s not the only one who’s had that reaction. It would probably be best, then, to simply set aside all of the normal expectations that accompany classical narrative cinema and be aware that this movie will leave you hanging in terms of suspense. Though I did not know the specific ending, I was prepared to have an open-ended conclusion, and that preparation served me well. As we shall see, there is definite purpose in Reichardt’s narrative choice.
While one can enjoy Meek’s Cutoff for its narrative strength (and there’s plenty to enjoy), a better way to appreciate the film would be to look at it as an allegorical exploration of faith. Not faith of any particular religion, mind you (though the people in it are Christians), but faith as an abstract concept. The ending of the film, rather than pay off on the story, is a climactic expression of this theme and a psychological point of realization for one of its characters.
Meek’s Cutoff is a classic lost in the wilderness story. Three families – only one with a child – are taking covered wagons across the West, aiming for gold riches in Oregon in the year 1845. They’ve hit Oregon, but they haven’t hit the fertile parts yet. The film begins, just as It will end, with this group moving aimlessly across the desert. They have purchased the guide services of a man named Steven Meek. He claimed to know the territory and a route to get them across the mountains. When the film opens, we learn that they should’ve seen those mountains three weeks ago. The group has begun to expect that Meek may not have been entirely honest. It’s hard to tell exactly what Meek is up to. He may have simply been dishonest about his knowledge of the territory, or he may be trying to lead them to certain death as a way of keeping immigrants from settling in Oregon. Either way, he talks a big talk, so it’s hard to tell. And since he is their only link to the territory, there’s nothing to do but trust him.
They move slowly, maybe at 10-12 miles a day, and the movie moves at a pace that mimics their progress. Reichardt wants us to get a sense of space and time, of the fact that these people have to walk across all this land, leading oxen and wagons. Being lost at this pace is not something the modern viewer would be familiar with. Today we drive in cars with GPS systems. If we are lost, we can usually size up our general location and find a way out with relative ease. Even without a GPS we have roads to follow, gas stations to stop at, and detailed maps to consult. There’s slight risk of running out of water when you can buy a bottle at any rest stop. Everything about the trip in Meek’s Cutoff is in that limbo state of not knowing what’s around the next corner. What lies over that ridge? How many days until we find water? How far, exactly, are we from the mountains? Should we go north or south? No question can be answered quickly or with any sense of authority. It takes masses of time to find out if you’re right or wrong. You might as well be walking in the dark.
The party does nothing but move from one unknown place to another. This wouldn’t be so bad if there were water to be found anywhere in their wanderings. At one point, they do find a large lake only have it contaminated with alkaline. They also find gold in the wilderness. Unable to take it with them, they leave a marker behind (Fargo-style), and we wonder if they would ever be able to find it again. We can see their dreams and aspirations made concrete only to vanish as soon as they appear.
Meek, their guide, is inscrutable, vain, and even annoying, but he’s at least familiar. He speaks English, he tells good stories, and he seems to have some clue about the land and where to go. At least you can communicate with him. But trust based on familiarity alone can last only so long. Results are necessary to sustain trust. Soon, they capture an Indian who has been following them for a while. They barter with him, and though they can’t understand anything that he says, they follow (and by extension trust) him the rest of the way. He points to spaces in the distance and speaks in his own language, and the party hope for the best. They move from trusting something familiar to a total unknown; an “other”. They rightly believe that any Indian who’s been following them around should know something about the land.
When the film ends, they are exactly where they had been at the beginning – lost. Only two things have changed; one of the men has collapsed from self-imposed dehydration and they’ve switched leaders. The Indian has taken them around for a while, but because they can’t communicate with him directly, they have no idea what to expect. Is he leading them to water? Is he leading them to his tribe? Is he leading them to certain death? How long will it take for him to lead them to any of these places? In the final scene they come to a tree bearing leaves near its bottom but barren at the top. There is no water source to be seen nearby. Though the same problem of following an unsure source has plagued them for the whole film, it becomes pronounced now. If they change their course drastically, they know that they could reach the Columbia River safely. Or they can follow this Indian deeper into the harsh unknown. Reichardt finishes with a series of shots that impress upon us the stress of this decision. As they stand by the tree, the Indian has walked off a little way on his own. Emily (Michelle Williams), who has been the stalwart voice of reason and strength throughout, looks at him intently. We see her in tight close-up, framed by the branches of the tree. We then see a reverse telephoto shot of the Indian. Reichardt cuts between the two and allows the situation to sink in. In the distance, the Indian seems to beckoning them further. In Emily’s face, we can see all the complexity of their decision: the worry, the fear, the resignation, and the possibilities. And then the film ends. We never know where the Indian will take them or if they will survive. We only know that they have staked their very lives by trusting in him. Even Meek, when asked to cast a vote on the situation, throws his lot with the Indian.
Seen as an allegorical exploration of faith and as an evocation of place and predicament, Meek’s Cutoff is a rich and rewarding experience.
Faith as a concept involves everything that we see in Meek’s Cutoff. The ability to follow someone or some idea without knowing exactly where it will lead you. You have hopes and aspirations for where it will lead you, but no concrete evidence that you will get to your desired destination. Sometimes, as it was with Meek, faith is misguided and misplaced; not on purpose, of course, but because we cannot know everything. Other times, as with the Indian, faith can be totally blind. You have to suspect that your object of faith understands your wishes and is capable of granting them. We can place our faith in anything from abstract religious concepts and entities to political figures; from the stock market to our very selves.
What makes Meek’s Cutoff such a beautiful exploration of faith is that not everyone in the film reacts the same way to the situation. Some want to hang Meek, others insist on following him; at one point the party goes directly against his advice in a sort of rebellion. Some react to Meek with fear and trepidation, others pay him almost no mind, and still others trust him almost implicitly. The same is true for the Indian. The women of the film are especially telling here. Each one has her own way of dealing with the mystery and predicament of their journey. One clings relentlessly to her husband, another is worried mostly about her child, and finally, Emily is the strongest in her ability to calmly process each turn of events. There are false leads throughout the film, too. There is no one group reaction to their situation; there are only group decisions. Each member of the party believes (or doesn’t believe) in their guides to varying degrees, but they all must take the same path. When your choices are as limited as theirs, you are forced to do things you may not do normally. This is how faith and trust work. It’s a limb that we go out on.
Meek’s Cutoff, above anything else, is about the process of following and putting your faith in a leader; the choices involved in following, the stakes, the psychological resolve that it takes to follow. The end result, where following will get you, is not important here.