Meek's Cutoff is a Western that tells the fact-based story of a group of settlers and their life-threatening trek - from a woman's point of view. Our reporter meets a director who isn't afraid to blaze a new trail
THE Western has largely been a male preserve, in front of and behind the camera. Women have occasionally asserted themselves in the genre, though quite often as fantasy figures in films directed by men, such as Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead and Jonathan Kaplan's Bad Girls.
Plucky Mattie Ross, played by exciting newcomer Hailee Steinfeld – and ultimately the one possessing the "true grit" in the Coen brothers' latest film – is somewhat more realistic. Again, though, True Grit is a vision of the Old West as seen from a male perspective.
Refreshingly, director Kelly Reichardt offers a different point of view in her hypnotic new film, Meek's Cutoff. Together with the Oregon-based writer Jon Raymond, with whom she collaborated on two of her previous features, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt tells the fact-based story of a group of settlers facing life-threatening conditions on the Oregon Trail in 1845 after their possibly clueless guide, Stephen Meek, leads them into unknown territory.
Instead of focusing on the men making the decisions that could seal their fate, Reichardt's attention is drawn to the women who walk behind the wagons, do domestic chores, and are excluded from the big discussions.
"The idea," says the fiercely independent Reichardt, "was if you took just any of the traditional Westerns and just wonderingly, like, moved the camera away from John Wayne, you could ask, 'What does that woman over there making him breakfast think of him? What's her point of view on all this?' That was one of the things I wanted to get to."
Diaries written by women on the Oregon Trail make it clear that the choice about whether to go or stay at home usually fell entirely to their spouses. Once on the move, they would have little or no say over what route to take, what laws they'd follow, or who would lead them.
"The women are outside those conversations," says Reichardt, "and getting their information through each other, or working their political power when they're alone in their tents with their husbands, if they have any."
To Reichardt, the women's voicelessness seemed to echo what it felt like in America under Bush. The country had put itself in his hands and now it felt like, she says, "This guy's going to kill us all. What are they doing? Just being outside where the power is and not having a say on how things go."
Some people have seen the addition of a fictional Native American Indian who may hold the key to the Meek party's survival as a nod to the appearance of Obama, who came to power just as the film was being edited. Reichardt, however, will only go so far in discussing the possible allegorical readings of Meek's Cutoff.
"If the political comes through the personal that's great. And if it doesn't it doesn't. Fine. I'm not out to make a political movie. There's no message per se. It just is what it is."
Indeed, the film's style means that it can be whatever the viewer wants to make of it. Reichardt's cast, which includes Wendy and Lucy's Michelle Williams, trudge through the desert at a pace that's almost trance-like. We become immersed in the moment with them, deliberately trapped in the "now" by an aspect ratio which frames the image in a tight square, rather than opening up the kind of vistas typical of westerns.
Shooting in desert locations through which the real pioneers passed, Reichardt says: "You can see 40 miles clear, and if you're travelling with your wagon trains ten miles a day, you'd really see, like, yesterday, today, and tomorrow if I'd shot widescreen, and I didn't want to be able to see what was coming."
It's debatable how much the actors saw coming. They were introduced to pioneer life at a five-day camp, where they learned how to shoot, pitch tents, load wagons, light a fire without matches, and drive oxen, and then found themselves filming in extreme desert conditions.
Temperatures soared to 43C on some days and on others dropped low enough for snow. The production designer suffered heatstroke and then seven days later an actor had to be taken to hospital with hypothermia.
"The landscape really kicks your ass, but it's beautiful at the same time. You would get up in the morning, drive for two hours, and by the time you get to where you're shooting, everybody is just covered in dust." She laughs. "You either found the beauty in all the hardness or you probably felt completely f***ed you were on this movie."
It wasn't just the weather and the gruelling terrain that the actors had to endure. Their historically accurate handmade clothes included shoes based on designs before shoes were made as left and right, while the women's elongated bonnets (they're usually shortened in films but Reichardt insisted on authenticity) took away their peripheral vision and affected their hearing – potentially dangerous disadvantages when walking close to moving wagons and powerful oxen.
I get the feeling, though, that Reichardt isn't someone who likes to compromise. Part of the reason her films are intimate, low-budget works is because she doesn't want to relinquish either control or her specific vision for more money. Asked whether she would like to go larger, she says: "If we tried to make a list of women in America making personal films on bigger scales, you could keep the lid on your pen. It's just not what's happening. So I can't even step into that world. It would frustrate me and make me a mean and bitter person."
When big stars get involved, "you're just meeting lawyers and agents, and then when you're casting, that is the time when everyone goes, 'Well it's a woman film-maker and women's films don't make money.' You just got to hear all this shit you don't want to hear."
The director Todd Haynes tells her she is making things difficult for herself, but it's a lifestyle choice, says Reichardt. She is happy working as a teacher at Bard College in upstate New York, and making films her way. She gets to edit them as she pleases, taking as long as she needs. "Who gets that? If you take more money you don't. And I think you just have to be a much more diplomatic person than I am to navigate that other world. I don't have that skill. If we make them small, we can really do what we want to do. And we don't have to feel like we can't just f*** up. That's a good way to make a movie."
l Meek's Cutoff screens at Cineworld, Glasgow, 12:45pm today, as part of the Glasgow Film Festival, and opens in cinemas on 5 April. www.glasgowfilm.org/festival