An interesting new Western debuted this weekend. Meek’s Cutoff is a solid, if spooky, addition to the genre. Michelle Williams (of Brokeback Mountain-fame and Heath Ledger’s widow) plays a pioneer woman, who, along with her husband and two other couples, points her wagon West and follows mountain man Stephen Meek through eastern Oregon to cross the Cascade Mountains. The lonely little wagon train quickly becomes in desperate need of water and essentially lost, which pushes everyone to the edge.
This is the rare Western that tells the story from a woman’s perspective, which, frankly, was a tough, subjugated role in 1845. The film’s cinematography is as unflinching and deliberate as the dry, sun-parched landscape the small party traverses. The film’s pace is slow and often dialogue-free—an effective method for building tension. It’s easy to watch and imagine actual early travelers crossing that vast territory feeling much the same. The physical (and cultural) divide between the West and, well, everywhere else is painfully palpable. All the characters remains polite, as was the Victorian convention, but things eventually get very weird.
In some ways, women are much tougher than men. They have a capacity for endurance and making hard choices than would buckle the knees of most men. This film and William’s brave character highlight that unique, feminine power in the face of terrifying uncertainty. The scene where Michelle Williams’ character first makes contact with a mysterious Native American man and fires a gun to signal her husband vividly and brilliantly captures her fear and the difficulty of her predicament. Later in the film, when she loads and points her rifle again, the lives of many hang in the balance.