Blog Directory CineVerse: The Meek shall inherit the earth--or not

The Meek shall inherit the earth--or not

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Here’s a welcome departure from western genre conventions: an oater directed by a woman and primarily featuring female characters that doesn’t rely on action or romance to enthrall audiences. Meek’s Cutoff checks off all those boxes and more.

Last week, our CineVerse group attempted to better understand this underrated feature. Here are several of the observations we came to (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find memorable, surprising, refreshing, or different about Meek’s Cutoff?

  • This is not presented in the typical modern widescreen format of 1.85:1 or larger. Instead, the filmmakers employ the aspect ratio of classic Hollywood of the 1940s and earlier, roughly 1.33:1, which essentially boxes in the characters, despite the expansive landscape surrounding them.
  • This film deviates significantly from most westerns and the expectations that genre fans have. There is very little action, no gunfights, no bloody skirmishes between cowboys and Indians, and no romantic subplot.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Nick Schager wrote: “Rather than expansive widescreen, she shoots in a boxy Academy-standard 4:3 aspect ratio that turns the vast Oregon plains claustrophobic; instead of expressive close-ups that capture frontiersmen and women’s tumultuous conditions, she opts for medium and long shots that keep her subjects at a distance; and in place of gunfire-peppered narrative momentum and relatively clear-cut good-versus-evil characterizations, she slows her material to a crawl and drenches her action in ambiguity, to the point that the entire affair quickly becomes engulfed in literal and moral/spiritual haziness.”
  • The point of view is told more from the female characters’ perspective. The camera lingers more with them, especially when the men are consumed by a job or go off to capture the Native American, for example.
  • The ending is ambiguous and unresolved, suggesting perhaps that our characters are in a no-win situation in which the conclusion is irrelevant – they are likely doomed no matter what happens and we, like them, are left to linger on an unsettling ending to the story.
  • The soundtrack and sound design are interesting; we hear very little musical score throughout the movie, and the dyad soundscape is relatively quiet. That makes us listen more attentively when we hear recurring noises like a creaky wagon wheel, squeaky hand-crank, chittering bird, or scraping on a rock or piece of wood.

Major themes

  • The blind following the blind, or the dangers of following an entrusted leader into uncharted territory. Meek seems full of tall tales, bluster, and bravado, but he’s gotten the group lost and, by the end of the story, relinquishes leadership and responsibility.
  • Trust versus logic, or blind faith versus rational thought
  • The chasm between different cultures. The westward settlers cannot communicate with or understand the Native American they have captured and vice versa. Yet, each side is dependent on the other for survival.
  • The story of America shouldn’t exclusively focus on or be told by men. Women played just as important a part in even the smallest of stories of our nation’s growth and struggle. A strong female character like Emily demonstrates that, while women on the frontier likely lacked agency and authority, they could make their voices heard and opinions known. We see how hard the women toiled, just like the men, in making the journey westward and trying to eke out a hardscrabble existence in the 1900s. This picture demonstrates that the sacrifices made by the wives, mothers, and daughters were equally significant.
  • The white man’s imperialistic attitude toward the land and the native peoples they attempted to conquer.

Similar works

  • Little Woods
  • McCabe and Mrs. Miller
  • Days of Heaven
  • Gerry
  • The Horseman

Other films directed by Kelly Reichardt

  • Wendy and Lucy
  • Old Joy
  • Night Moves
  • Certain Women
  • First Cow

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