Kelly Reichardt: Redefining The Western

<i>Wendy and Lucy</i> director <b>Kelly Reichardt</b> talks to The Skinny about her new film <i>Meek's Cutoff</i>

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 07 Apr 2011

The Wild West wasn’t a place for womenfolk, or so the movies would have us believe. It was a macho world of cutthroat bandits, whiskey drinking sheriffs and squinting strangers who knew their way round a six shooter. Sure you’d see the odd woman, the heavyset battle-axe who’d fix John Wayne’s grits when Walter Brennan wasn’t available, or the girls at the local whorehouse ready to give Clint Eastwood a sponge bath after three months in the saddle, but their story ended as soon as Wayne cleared his plate and Clint shot his load.

There have been a handful of westerns that have tried to address this, most notably Sam Raimi’s underrated spaghetti western homage The Quick and the Dead, where Sharon Stone played a deadly sharp shooter, and Nicholas Ray’s wildly subversive Johnny Guitar, with Joan Crawford as a square shouldered saloon owner. But in these two fine films it is the female characters who do the compromising, with Stone’s "Lady" and Crawford’s Vienna merely shapely versions of the macho anti-heroes the western is built on.

Kelly Reichardt, the director behind Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy, and the hard to find River of Grass, challenges this genre convention with her new film Meek’s Cutoff by aligning the film’s point-of-view with its female protagonists. “I was just wondering what it would be like for a woman on the outside watching all that macho posturing. Like in The Searchers, what is the world like for the woman serving John Wayne his soup? What does it look like from where she’s standing, listening to all his bravado?” Reichardt tells me from her home in New York.

Based on a true story of a wagon train that got lost crossing the Cascade Mountains in 1845, the film centres on a small group of pioneers, three families in three wagons, who are following the eponymous Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, hidden under a mass of hair that suggest the same barber as ZZ Top), a prospector who they have hired to shepherd them West across the barren plains of Oregon to a promised land of gold, or a “second Eden”, as Meek describes it.

The film begins with the party mid-journey, crossing a river and replenishing their water supply. From the outset it is clear that Meek is lost, but he continues to talk a good game with tall tales of battling grizzlies and surviving attacks from "Injuns", much to the frustration of the tired, starving travellers who’ve put their faith in this blowhard. But, with no alternative, the male heads of the families decide better the devil you know and follow on despite their increasing doubts. While the men are off making decisions the camera lingers with the women, who include Michelle Williams, the lead in Reichardt’s previous film Wendy and Lucy, as they go about their arduous daily routine of collecting firewood, darning clothes and preparing meals from their meagre supplies. Williams’ Emily has mutiny in her eyes but has no say in the matter and quietly respects her husband (Will Patton)’s decision.

A female perspective is not the only genre inversion. Gone too is the gunplay and violence. “It is a super masculine genre,” explains Reichardt of the western, “and it really focuses on these completely heightened moments that constantly set up a situation, or masculinity, to be proven, and proved again and again and again.”

Focusing on “completely heightened moments” is not a charge that could be levied at Reichardt, whose films unfurl like elliptical daydreams, with drama coming from small day-to-day struggles. In Wendy and Lucy, for example, a young woman (Williams) is trying to make her way to Alaska by car to start a new job but is quickly running out of money. The drama comes from her quiet desperation, but there is no cataclysmic event that brings her to breaking point; it’s a whole load of little things – a broken down car, a shoplifting fine, a missing dog – that push her toward the precipice of abject poverty.

It is this type of day-to-day struggle that Reichardt and the film’s writer, Jon Raymond, discovered when researching the film. “We were looking at the diaries from the time, and a lot of the diary keepers were women, and suddenly you can get a look at the West from this feminine point-of-view. It has much more to do with the trance-like component of just walking across the country, and how time works, and how days bleed into each other. It’s not at all about heightened moments, it’s quite the opposite. It’s really about endless landscapes and endless days that become familiar nights, and it’s such a different feeling to how those journeys West are presented in American cinema.”

Does she see herself as a feminist filmmaker, then?

“No, I wouldn’t say that. I just think that it’s important that not all cinema is shown from a white, male perspective. Do we have to absolutely label it as something specific as opposed to being a different voice?” Reichardt asks forcefully. “I, myself, wouldn’t even call [the film] a western. I was trying not to use the word when I was making it, just to keep any expectations for how it would be shot, or whatever, at bay.”

Reichardt may not consider herself a feminist filmmaker, but she’s certainly a political one. Wendy and Lucy is a clear criticism of the lack of state support in America for people on the breadline. In Old Joy, Reichardt compares the fortunes of two life long friends, one who’s living the American Dream and the other who's practically a hobo, and throughout the film a talk radio station laments America’s crumbling social fabric. Both films are set in rundown towns in America's North West.

While never overt, an analogy with modern America isn’t too hard to decipher from Reichardt’s quick plot synopsis of Meek’s Cutoff. “Our story is based on this true story of a guy who basically didn’t really seem to know what he was doing and led a bunch of people into the desert without really having a plan to get them out,” Reichardt says wryly, “which seemed quite contemporary.”

Meek’s clueless leadership and hollow rhetoric certainly calls to mind America’s previous cowboy president and his foreign policy follies. Perhaps it’s not a stretch, then, to see the native American that the convoy encounter, and who may hold the key to their salvation, as the country's current incumbent? “I’ll leave it to the audience to put it together, I think,” says Reichardt.

It’s this quality, the instinct to leave things unsaid and leave plot lines unravelled, that sets Reichardt apart from many of her contemporaries. The ending of Meek’s Cutoff, for example, offers no catharsis, no clear resolution. It will madden many, but Reichardt believes it’s a key part of her filmmaking. “All my films, I guess, are asking questions rather than providing any kind of message or statement. They are presenting an idea I hope, but it would be nice, I think, if two people sitting next to each other in the film would leave and both have different ideas about it, and that could lead to a conversation.”


You can join in the conversation from 15 Apr when Meek’s Cutoff goes on general release