In the opening scene of “Meek’s Cutoff”, three Conestoga Wagons float across a river, and the families carry their belongings (removed from the wagons to lighten the load) across, balancing them on their heads. The crossing is slow and deliberate – as is the rest of the film. Once across the river, the three families plod on through the deserts of Eastern Oregon, headed for the Willamette River Valley (my current home).
The movie is an anti-Western. There is no gunplay. There are no villains. Meek, a long-haired, tall-tale-telling guide is leading three families toward a new life. In the desert, as water runs low, it becomes obvious that Meek may not know where he is, or where he is going.
The families, who haven’t spoken more than a couple of words for the first half hour of the movie, debate what to do. Meek captures an Indian, and wants to kill him – but one husband and wife argue against it, reasonably claiming the Ute can lead them to much needed water.
On they plod, through the sun-parched earth, against the back drop of a cloud-flecked sky. There is no end to the movie – it ends in the middle, to a gasp from the crowd, who were shocked that the question of whether the settlers found water in time was left unanswered, as was the question of whom to trust, Meek or the Indian. But that was the movie’s aim: the future is never certain. Even if they found the needed water, the settlers would have had more unmapped desert to cross. Their guides to an uncharted future would continue to be a choice between the untrustworthy and the unintelligible.
“Meek’s Cutoff” depicts what many may see as an adventure as a plod – slow, stolid, consistent. The viewer awaits resolution – joy, or sorrow, or even some sign of enjoyment. But it doesn’t come. The settlers march on, one foot after the other, and leave only the temporary trail of wagon wheels as a sign of their passing.
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