Meek’s Cutoff opens in the rare 1:33 aspect ratio to the sight of three women crossing the last river they will encounter for miles in the Oregon desert. The film later fades out to a tree branch framing the mysterious Cayuse, who strides away into the distance. Like subtle bookends, the water and branch represent just one of the links which bind the women and the native Indian through nature, in a film which has been heralded a Women’s Western.
From the very beginning, Reichardt hints through the use of her motif that the men and women of the pilgrimage are fundamentally different. Glory tends to a wild yellow bird in a cage, carrying it carefully across the river and then peering into it’s cage, perhaps empathizing with the creatures confinement. Each of the three women gather kindling, and in fact appear to be the only ones affected by the elements; battling against the sandy wind or sweating in the sun which beats down on their restricting bonnets. The women are also distinctly more vocal than their husbands regarding the lack of water in the vicinity. Along with their swelling distrust of troupe leader Meek, the supply of water eventually becomes the central concern of this quest. For the men, however, admitting this would be admitting a defeat of sorts, and you never hear a muttered concern originating from their mouths. William even goes so far as to collapse before accepting some of the water supply, determined to keep up appearances.
The Cayuse whom the men have captured (thanks to Emily’s insistence that he exists) follows the settlers as a prisoner, his life now contractually bound to leading them to water. At first, his obstinate attitude towards Emily sets him up as an outsider to both the men and women; the ‘other’ who is not worthy of either sexes humility. As the settlers move forward though, it would appear that the Cayuse’s otherness is of an unrecognizable worldliness, one which involves a bemusing connection with nature and spirituality. But the Cayuse’s hieroglyphic style of communicating, and moving song ritual when William stares death in the face, suggests that he is more closely in tune with the women. Spirituality is a trait already seen in Millie, who occasionally breaks her enforced feminine silence to hysterically preach that the dreadful fate they’ve been dealt is not far from materializing. The Indian and Emily’s bond is boldly realized when she protects him from the end of Meek’s gun barrel with her own firearm, but it is unclear whether this action is out of care for the Indian or frustration and anger with Meek. The former is confirmed in the closing two shots; Emily’s face wrapped in curling branches, gazing out to the hopeful path trodden by the Indian, also framed in branches. This unifies their connection; one of a link with nature, but also of two Reichardtian lost souls.
Emily and the Indian both entrust their fates to the hands of men. The three men and Meek incontrovertibly lead both the political deliberations and the landscape trek. As the women and the spectator are denied the privilege of hearing the men’s private discussions, we can only speculate that many of their decisions were poorly made. Meek’s leaves you with the desperate desire to see the women’s quest for water fulfilled. Although the settlers never touch a drop, the journey becomes a vehicle for wider observations regarding the role of women. The men in Meek’s are not of this world, as they are unnaturally unresponsive to their direful circumstance. The film might let the men lead the way, charging on despite all obstacles, but it is the women and the enigmatic Indian we remember, who, linked by a thematic, are innately wiser than their oppressors.