Looking for something interesting to play instantly on Netflix? Here’s a Queuetip from Matt Jager.

In 1845, before dime novel romances of cattle rustlers and railroad barons made an epic stage of the woolly frontier, the west was an uninhabitable wasteland only the hopeless dared to cross. In Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 picture Meek’s Cutoff, that crossing is a desolate path peeling off the main trunk of the Oregon Trail. Three families of what appear to be farmers follow Meek, a loudmouth trapper-turned-guide, into the high desert scrubland.

My twentieth century history textbooks painted the early emigrants who settled the western territories as pioneering heroes. Actually, these men and women quit their country in the hope of a better life outside American borders. At the time of Meek’s Cutoff, manifest destiny didn’t exist. The idea that the United States had a god-given mission to annex the whole of the westward continent unto the ocean was only invented because James Polk wanted to open fur ports on the Pacific coast to compete with the Hudson Bay Company. No one in the wagon trains of the time knew whether they would end up Americans, or subjects of the British crown, or stateless settlers living in anarchy.

Reichardt’s emigrants hardly seem to care. They have rumbled out from civilization into a trackless wilderness. The accoutrements of civilized life they have taken with them paint a shadow of the dream they once had for their destination. As their journey progresses, that dream shrinks and fades. Bird cages and rocking chairs have little value to a wagoneer dying of thirst. The role of the womenfolk is particularly pathetic. They stumble across the endless scrubland in starched bonnets and handstitched dresses, and spend their evenings grinding coffee or kneading dough for bread.

It’s hard not to feel a kind of kinship with these confused but essentially decent people who march into the unknown guided by nothing but blind hope and a fool called Meek. “We’re not lost,” Meek explains, “we’re just finding our way.” The whole project is clumsy and ill-planned, propelled by the audacious optimism that an eden lays somewhere ahead beyond the next hilltop. In this sense the emigrants do remain quintessentially American. Their simple faith calls to mind the innocence of Steinbeck’s Oklahoma sharecroppers, and our madcap dash to the moon, and the promises that led young American men and women under arms into Mesopotamian sands.

Reichardt’s film follows a similar path from promise to futility. She builds rising tension (albeit hynotically) and then in what should be the climactic moment, Meek’s Cutoff just, well, cuts off. Critics defend the ending as an artistic brushstroke reflecting a genre subversion, but the director shruggingly admits she just plumb ran out of money.

There’s no getting around the dissatisfaction you’ll feel when the credits roll. Still, in spite of her micro-budget, Reichardt manages to present what seems like a true-to-life portrayal of a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. In doing so she gives the lie to D.H. Lawrence’s famous accusal that the American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. The western territories were settled by mostly gentle, pragmatic people capable of real moral courage. Surely there were among their number a cruel minority of domineering bullies – the ancestors of bandito jefes and swaggering gunfighters. In Meek’s Cutoff, though, these villains are no more or less than the splatters of piss that, back on the farm, would turn a clean cup of well water into waste. Not so, in the bush. As Reichardt shows, two day of thirst in the Oregon high desert will make a little pisswater look a whole lot more palatable than otherwise.

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