Parental Influences in “Meeks Cutoff”

This essay is one that was written as an assignment for one of my classes during college. With Kelly Reichardt’s new film, First Cow, available on VOD, I thought I would post this essay that I did for one of her previous films.

Meek's Cutoff movie review & film summary (2011) | Roger Ebert

Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt, 2010) was a fascinating one to me for many reasons. While I understood it was a western, there were some other genres this film could have easily fit under as well. There war many aspects of a horror along the lines of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972). This film is as rooted in American history as a film could be, telling what an honest look at the time period is. There are no saloons, no giant shootouts, and no confidence among the travelers crossing the barren lands. This film is labeled in the western genre, but there are many aspects of a western that it does not fall into at all. All of which, make this film the more fascinating.

One aspect of this film that is interesting is Emily’s (Michelle Williams) relationship with the Native American Prisoner. When the group encounters this Native in the open, they are poised with the question of if they should kill him on the spot, or let him live and have him, hopefully, show them the way to freedom. The Native cannot speak the language of the rest of the group and can only somewhat understand what they are saying.

The two clear “leaders” of the group are Emily and Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Once the Native American boy is discovered and captured, these two people become parental figures to him. Meek is constantly tough on him, and Emily is the one who is protecting him throughout the film. She is the one that is going out of her way to feeding him and giving him water and anything else he needs. She does it under the thought that she wants him to owe them something, but there is a clear maternal bond between the two of them.

Ortner talks about this in her book Film Feminism when discussing the role of lower-class mothers. We do not necessarily know exactly what class these people are in but can infer based on the fact they are traveling west for more opportunity that they are at least not in the upper class. Emily’s relationship with the Native leads me to believe that she is from a lower-class structure. Ortner writes, “… in these films set in the working or lower classes, the mothers’ struggles to protect their children are rendered starkly visible. Even the bad behavior of the father is, if not excused, at least contextualized within a larger picture of the scarcity of resources and the chaos of life in the lower classes”. (Ortner, 193) The film also has many occurrences to visualize the parental relationship between Meek, Emily, and the Native.

However, I believe the most important scene that shows this relationship flourish between the three is the very end. At the end of the film, after all that, the group has been through, and after all the protection Emily has given to the Native, Meek relinquishes his “leadership” and says that he is going to follow Emily’s guidance and is under her command. As the Native walks away from the tree into the barren land, there is a feeling of a child leaving home. Meeks’ handing over of command is a gesture of a job well done because he understands that if they had listened to him and killed the boy they would be ultimately lost in the desert.            

In conclusion, there is a bond between the three most important characters of the film that help guide the film along its path. Reichardt doesn’t show the poverty of this group through material items, but like Ortner says, she shows the poverty through tense and stressful moments of chaos and lack of order. (Ortner, 196) This poverty aspect is what leads Emily to be more sympathetic and endearing towards the Native. She becomes a motherly figure to him and protects him from the stereotypically abusive father. This take on parental figures and the working class is an interesting and unique one that I found fascinating as the film went on.

Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.

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