The first things that struck me about it are that the picture, at least on my tv, is square (I don't know why, but the effect is to make you feel that you aren't seeing the full picture, that your perspective is limited, incomplete); that the cinematography is superb; and that the movie is very quiet. I had to turn it up unusually loud to hear what people were saying, and there is a general lack of sound in the film (very little music, for instance, and not a whole lot of dialogue). In this respect, as well as in others, it is quite different from The Tree of Life, although I'm tempted to say that Meek's Cutoff is the movie that The Tree of Life wanted to be. The main thing you hear is the creaking of the wagons as they are pulled across the dry land. There is very little for the people to do except wonder whether their guide, Stephen Meek, really knows where he is taking them, to fear that they will die of thirst or at the hands of the native people, and to read from the Bible. The first passage read is not about the meek inheriting the Earth, which would have been obvious, but about our being made of dust and destined to return to dust. Not very cheery when you're lost in a desert.
I did find myself thinking constantly about the idea of inheriting the Earth. Would this mean getting to Oregon and the agricultural riches promised there? Or would it mean inheriting the desert, perhaps by dying in it and becoming part of it? And who will get the inheritance in question, the meek or Mr Meek? He is one of four leaders who appear in the film, the others being a man named Solomon, a woman named Emily Tetherow, and an unnamed native American. Meek is not meek, and one character wonders whether he is evil or simply ignorant. People ask similar questions about God in relation to the problem of evil. Is he not really omnibenevolent? Or not really omniscient? And with people who do bad things (from annoyances inflicted on you by your boss to the worst atrocities in human history) we wonder whether they are malevolent or just irrational. Either way, the group is in Meek's hands.
At least until the other leaders emerge. Solomon and Emily Tetherow are clearly well-intentioned, but are they wise? It's hard to know. And when the group decides to follow the Native American they don't know whether he is leading them to water or to his home, which, from their perspective, would be a trap (at least if the native people treated them as they have treated the Native Americans). Or perhaps he is lost too. In the absence of knowledge people look for signs, or for meaning in what might be signs. A tree might signify that the desert is coming to an end, but what does a dead tree indicate? When the Native American makes marks on rocks and leaves other traces of his presence, is he leading other people to find him, or is it "Nothing--just religion"?
No answers are given by the film, at least not to questions about whom to choose as a guide. It's clear enough in general where we start and where we end up, and the time in-between is, one character says, something like a dream or a story. I suppose it makes sense to live well, rather than doing (what appears to you as) evil that might seem necessary simply in order to live longer. What living well entails, though, and whether religion is just nothing or somehow necessary for true humanity, or perhaps just a kind of beautiful ornament, is not clear.
It's funny how a film set in the American West in the 19th century, not the least popular setting for films over the years, can seem so unfamiliar. The wagons seem smaller than I think of them as being, the landscape is flatter, the women's clothes part familiar, part middle-eastern looking when the sand blows around their heads, and part almost like something from Star Wars when we see their bonnets in silhouette. And their predicament seems novel, like a story whose ending we want to get to, and yet, in outline, about as familiar as it could possibly be.