“Meek’s Cutoff” by Kelly Reichardt


This paper primarily delves into an examination of the film “Meek’s Cutoff” and examines is thematic elements, cinematography and how certain scenes can be interpreted and how they help to influence the entire film. Aside from this, paper delves deeply into the concept of the western shootout scene, its relevance and how its use differs in this film as compared to others.


The much used shootout scene is a classic throwback seen in various cowboy movies which normally involve a one on one battle between a good and brave sheriff and a despicable outlaw. From the perspective of Parker (2014), a shootout scene can actually be boiled down to the concept of good versus evil where a hero comes to save the day. Other iterations of this type of scene focus on a more racially oriented version of events wherein a shootout occurs between a white sheriff or even a white deputy and the “savage” indians that roam the untamed wilderness of the West (Parker, 2014).

It is based on this that when looking at the scene of Meek holding a gun to the head of the indian, it reflects various elements of the classic shootout scene. However, there are various differences to consider, the first is that the concept of “justice” versus “evil” in this scene is highly ambiguous since the character of Meek has been portrayed as being contemptuous, unstable and likely does not know what he’s doing. On the other hand, while the Indian is originally viewed with a considerable level of caution and uncertainty, he has yet to actually do anything to warrant violent behavior.

As such, in this scene a reversal occurs wherein instead of the white man with the gun being the representation of “good” and justice, the reverse is actually the case wherein he represents evil and corruption while the Indian is a vague representation of “good” since he did offer to lead the people to a source of water. It is in this situation that another aspect is introduced in the form of Emily Tetherow who points a gun at Meek in order to prevent him from shooting the Indian.

Discuss on the “the conflict between civilized order and the lawless frontier

The concept of a western being a conflict between a civilized order and a lawless frontier is exemplified in the case of the movie “Meeks Cutoff” when the vestiges of what can be defined as “civilized behavior” give way to the anarchy that comes about when presented with the harsh reality of existence. First, it is important to develop some context in the standoff scene in order to under the perspective of Bordwell and Thompson. First and foremost is the fact that the prior to the confrontation, the settlers and Meek were subject to a situation where their lives were in danger given their dwindling water supplies.

Over the course of their trip, with little in the way of foreseeable hope, the vestiges of social behavior were slowly giving way to the need to find some way to survive. It is based on this perspective that the perspective of Bordwell and Thompson become all the more apparent as the desire to remain civilized conflicts with the innate desire of the settlers to survive. Manifestations of the uncivilized (or in this case lawless) behavior come in the form of threats of violence, holding a man against his will as well as the potential to be shot to death. These instances are manifestations of how the environment showcased in the film affects people within resulting in the conflict that Bordwell and Thompson mention.

There are examples of this seen in other films depict the old west in the form of a town being situated in the middle of the frontier with outlaws holding more power than the local sheriff due to their numbers resulting in the development of a considerable level of lawlessness which calls into question the stability of the society that is present in the area.

Are there important ways in which the scene defies genre expectations?

One way in which the movie defies genre expectations can be seen in the way in which Emily Tetherow becomes a more central figure in the movie as compared to the men. It is important to note that in most cowboy movies, males are the central figures in the film and act as the means by which either lawlessness or justice is expressed. Women are usually relegated to secondary roles where they either act as damsels in distress or are merely romantic interests. In the case of this film, the men among the settlers are apparently impotent and it takes the actions of a woman (Emily) in order to protect what is apparently their only source of salvation (i.e. the Indian leading them to water).

Another aspect to take into consideration is how there is no clear cut aspect of good and evil in the film. In cowboy movies it is normally seen that there is a villain that the protagonist is up again; however, in the case of this film it is evident that the concept of an antagonist is not so clear cut since the character of Meek is just trying to do his job while it is still uncertain whether the Indian truly means to harm the settlers.

How the filmmaker(s) prepare us for the decisive moment when Emily intervenes between Meek and the Indian

Filmmakers prepare audiences for the eventual confrontation between Meek, Emily and the indian by utilizing a variety of scenes and framing in order to create a sense of hostility between the characters. The first element can be seen in the way in which the camera focuses on Meek staring the Indian with an apprehensive and even hostile expression on his face. The length of time in which Meek and the Indian stare at each other is meant to emphasize some form of hostile animosity between the two that is just bubbling behind the surface.

The same technique can also be seen in the case of Emily and Meek wherein there are numerous instances where the camera pans into the face of Emily and she looks at Meek in a semi-hostile fashion while at the same time has a more hopeful expression whenever she looks at the indian.

This particular instance makes it appear that Emily is more likely to side with the Indian than she is to side with Meek. Aside from this, there are also the performances of the actors to take into consideration. The various scenes involving Meek and the Indian before the confrontation show a considerably level of hostility wherein Meek is emphasizing that the Indian should not be trusted and portrays himself as being incredibly hostile to the Indian’s presence and actions. From a certain perspective, it can be interpreted that the portrayal is an attempt to showcase the character as fearing that his authority will be usurped within the caravan and that he will be portrayed as not knowing what he is doing since the apparent “shortcut” that they took resulted in the caravan leaving the safety of well established trails.


Parker, B. (2014). The western film and psychoanalysis. Film Quarterly, 68(2), 22. Web.

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