The resulting film defies easy description, much less categorization. Inspired by the wagons’ canopies and women’s tunnel-like bonnets, Reichardt shot the film in a seldom-used, near-square, 1.37:1 format. “With the square, you can have the crackling dirt and the sky over the mountains,” says Reichardt. It keeps you firmly with the emigrants.”
Time, too, hangs with the emigrants, with long scenes devoted to the building of campfires, the grinding of coffee, and in one of the tensest moments, the slow process of clearing and loading a rifle to get off a second shot. Jeff Grace’s score steers clear of all big-sky western chords in favor of pulsing, wind-like distortion. And despite the cast’s considerable acting power, only Bruce Greenwood as the grizzled, storytelling, philosophizing Meek offers any typical western archetype. Instead, Reichardt and the actors slowly divine each character in a gradual revelation of social class, life experience, and religious fealty that, as the going gets dryer, breeds their differing fears, desperations, and strengths.
“People were outside all day in the elements, and they got worn down,” says Reichardt of the actors. “The wind constantly blowing dust in your face and having to deal with animals—not horses, but bulls—keeps performances from being anything but in the moment.”
The film’s most penetrating moments arrive with the Indian the party encounters and then captures, played by longtime Hollywood stuntman and Crow-Cheyenne polyglot Rod Rondeaux. Speaking only in Nez Perce (he learned the language for the film), Rondeaux carries an unyielding otherness that leaves him as yet another ambiguity. Is he, as Meek believes, a threat to quickly dispose of or, as Williams’s Emily Tetherow hopes, a knowledgeable local who might lead them to water?
Raymond’s dialogue constantly levitates action to metaphor. As the emigrants face the roadblock of an alkaline desert lake, Patton’s Solomon Tetherow sums up the dilemma: “What is the best way west: north or south?” Upon encountering a possible sign of water, Dano’s Thomas Gately foregrounds the still-impending limbo: “We’re close but we’re not sure what to.” When the women chide Meek’s masculinity, he quickly spits back a double-edged statement of gender equality: “Women are created on the principle of chaos… men are created on the principle of destruction.”
Raymond describes Meek’s Cutoff as a “feminist western” and a “community western,” contrasting it against the genre’s usual primacy of lone male heroes, violent resolutions, and climactic drama. Reichardt sidesteps labels, instead citing the inspiration of a single shot—what she describes as arguably the only one in the history of westerns offering a female point of view—from Nicholas Ray’s 1952 movie The Lusty Men. After an argument between Susan Hayward and Robert Mitchum over whose frontier life is richer with adventure—the woman’s or the cowpoke’s—Mitchum strides out the door, but the camera hangs on Hayward, in the kitchen holding a dish. “That scene,” Reichardt says, “was in the file of my mind when I was trying to make this film.”