BY Jennifer Kabat in Profiles | 13 MAY 11

New Frontiers

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff and the contemporary Western

BY Jennifer Kabat in Profiles | 13 MAY 11

Kelly Reichardt’s recent film Meek’s Cutoff (2011) has been described as a Western, sometimes as a post-Western or a new Western. Whatever it might be, its view of the West is greater when taken alongside the director’s two preceding movies, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008). All three were written in collaboration with the Oregon-based novelist Jon Raymond (and, in the case of the earlier two films, based on his short stories), and together they work as a triptych of sorts about American values – a revisionist take on the West and the Western.

Each film is set in Oregon and in all of them the protagonists are lost and searching for something elusive – a shortcut, a job, a trip to the great outdoors. In Meek’s Cutoff a band of pioneers in a breakaway wagon train are already astray at the start of the film, which begins after the group has hitched their future to fast-talking mountain man Stephen Meek. Taking a Native American hostage leads to a crisis about who to follow and who to trust as they run ever shorter on water. Lost in the high desert, it’s a kind of endless quest – with an almost endless ending where nothing is resolved.

In Wendy and Lucy, Wendy is derailed from her plans to travel to Alaska for a potentially well-paid cannery job. Here again is the frailty of promises, not to mention social bonds and the tenuousness of existence while searching for ever-elusive better times. In Old Joy two friends set out on a camping trip but get lost, testing the limits of friendship and values in a kind of alterna- or anti-Brokeback Mountain. Each movie explores values and violence, both of which hover at the edge of the frame as things go wrong.

The twinned themes of morals and lawlessness are the traditional territory of Westerns. From the Deadwood television series (2004–6) back to The Searchers (1956), there’s always the question of what is the law and how do we make it. Wrapped up in these questions is the larger one about our own identity. Those issues are just as vital in Reichardt’s films, though the answers are dismaying. In Meek’s Cutoff we get a parable for ourselves today – its question is who do you listen to? The big-talking cowboy with his endless journey, fuelled by this fear of the other? (Which seems in the film nearly an allegory for Bush and his endless war). For the settlers the decision about killing or keeping their hostage speaks to their moral quandary, while the threat of retaliation lurks in Old Joy, and Wendy is at the whim of rules and a society that have failed her.


The notion of the frontier and the West still defines the United States’ national psyche. Even while imperialism has elsewhere been discredited, we still celebrate it – visually at least. You’d be hard-pressed to find other countries whose territorial conquests continue to be such a strong part of their cultural iconography. In America, though, the image of West remains powerful – from Bierstadt to Richard Prince and Patagonia catalogues. (All are related to advertising: Bierstadt’s grand paintings were once used to sell the pioneer life and shown in the East Coast to ticket-toting crowds, while Patagonia uses the same sweeping landscapes to sell outdoors gear today.)

And, of course, there’s the Western itself as deployed by everyone from the Johns (Ford and Wayne) and Sergio Leone up to the Coen Brothers. Each era invests the genre with its own values, as when Sam Peckinpah offered up a version about Vietnam and war and the failures of society; like Reichardt, he too made ‘contemporary’ Westerns, which include Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Straw Dogs (1971) and even Convoy (1978). Part of what Reichardt is criticizing here is that lionizing of Western expansion and how it still shapes our culture. In her movies you see the bankruptcy of that myth: everyone is lost, has been sold a bill of goods and following an empty dream. It’s Sisyphean – the Western via Samuel Beckett, with the perpetually squeaking wagon wheel. You keep going because you have to, because going is what you do.

Meek’s Cutoff is based on a true story: there was a real Stephen Meek who in 1845 led a breakaway band of pioneers on what was supposed to be a safe route to avoid the Cayuse tribe. The pioneers also found gold, but, as in the movie, it was of no use to them when they were desperate for water. Though the story is a famous piece of Oregon history, Jon Raymond didn’t come across it until a couple years ago when he was given the rather surreal job of naming a golf course near Bend, Oregon (in the world after the movie ends, this is where the pioneers did end up). Researching the area’s history, he found the story and the subject for his next film with Reichardt. The irony of its ending in a golf course isn’t lost on either of them – particularly in a country where the notion of land and landscape is filled with God and destiny from the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards through to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and up to the present day with the Western.

Raymond and Reichardt explore not only Oregon’s history but the contemporary notion of Portland as a promised land. Wendy and Lucy (originally called ‘Train Choir’) and Old Joy both come from Raymond’s collection Livability (2008) – a play on the phrase ‘livable city’. Portland, where the stories are set and whose residents are often his subjects, frequently tops those annual lists of the most livable city in America. In his novel The Half-Life (2004), twinned narratives of lost, starving trappers and a Reagan-era commune take place just outside of Portland. In this landscape, the actions of the past have ramifications on the present, as if no one is free from history or their fantasies of what they’d find when they got to the mythic Oregon. (In the novel there’s even a brief reference to the son of a banker who’s on his way to the same canneries Wendy seeks in Wendy and Lucy). It’s as if that image of the Old West sets the score for our present day attitudes, as if we’ve not escaped its mythology. As if we can’t.

The landscape that once drew pioneers to the Willamette Valley (lionized by Meek in the movie) still draws immigrants today. Present-day Portland, the livable city, is a new Eden, a promised land for middle-class ‘cultural creatives’ at corporations such as Nike, Weiden & Kenney and Adidas, which are all based there. Somehow Portland still lives in the imagination as this fertile land between sea and towering mountains, where not far from the city you can experience the wilds (in a safe, contained way). The city has been frequently lauded in the New York Times as a kind of hippy heartland to which Brooklynites moved in droves. With the recession, though, the city has had one of the highest rates of unemployment in the US, not to mention foreclosures. Raymond himself has commented privately about the constant flow of immigrants looking for the good life of local organic food and a certain lefty nirvana. Taken together his stories and screenplay offer a commentary on the seekers and road trips and Westerns, where everyone gets lost discovering that what you sought never existed.

This myth of the West is a psychic fantasy we keep re-enacting. That longing for escape, the frontier, and the hope of reinvention still shape us. The Eden which the Puritans and Pilgrims thought they would find in the New World drives us as if the landscape itself were destiny, as if it was the receptacle of our values. Only in Raymond and Reichardt’s hands we ultimately see the futility of that dream.

Jennifer Kabat is a writer. She teaches at The New School, New York, USA, and on the MFA Art Writing programme, School of Visual Arts, New York.