Much like her previous two movies, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff is a minimalist little gem that refuses to fit into any sort of mold that we've seen before. It's a western, but it's completely unlike any western I've ever seen. It concerns a small group of pioneers trekking across 1845 Oregon, led by Stephen Meek (a never better Bruce Greenwood). Reichardt successfully evokes the hardship that these settlers came up against, the exhaustion, dehydration, and simply the physical harshness of the land and travelling over it. Michelle Williams continues her streak of brilliance, working with her Wendy and Lucy director again, as Emily Tetherow, the strongest and most vocal of the women of the group.
Meek was hired to lead the pioneers through the dangerous and unforgiving land, but some think he has lost his way and is too proud, or incompetent, to say it. When they capture an Indian (Rod Rondeaux), it's Mrs. Tetherow and her husband Soloman (Will Patton, also returning to Reichardt's world after Wendy and Lucy) that says they should let him lead the group towards water, of which they're quickly running out. They can't communicate with the Indian, and there are some in the group, specifically the Gately's (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) who think the Indian is leading them into an ambush from his tribe. The paranoia and sense of impending doom don't really ever disipate, letting things fester in the minds of the pioneers and us in the audience.
Most people who dislike the movie have said things along the lines of "it's boring, nothing happens, etc." and I kind of think that's part of Reichardt's point. These people were traversing the land on the hope of finding something, but that doesn't mean that they will. Often times, one day melded into the next, as you rode from one generic valley to the next without any clue of what you're leading towards. I felt a profound sadness as Emily throws an old clock that belonged to her husbands mother, and some chairs out of the back of the wagon, just to ease the load on the oxen as they got further into the depths of the land.
Reichardt shoots the scenery in an oppressive vastness. It's a very lonely movie, as the neverending landscape insulates the group further and further, letting them see far enough to know that they're not close to anything, but with the manifest destiny belief that paradise could be just over the next hill.
The acting in the movie is top notch, especially by Michelle Williams, who has become possibly my favorite actor to watch think. She shows so much with her eyes and body language, and not every actor can tell a story without much dialog. Rod Rondeaux, as the Indian, has the mystery they leads our eyes to him over and over again, as we try to read him and figure out his motives. Is he leading them to water and more? Or his he leading them to certain doom? He certainly doesn't hate the settlers, as he gorgeously sings a lament for one of the men dying from dehydration. Reichardt's final shot lets us decide for ourselves, though I'm not sure what I think
Stephen Meek was a real man, a fur trapper and guide through the old pacific northwest. He even has a path named for him, the Meek Cutoff, a road branching from the Oregon Trail. Greenwood plays him with something of a messiah complex, false humility, but certain intelligence behind his bushy facial hair. Reichardt definitely, from her comments on the movie, wished to make comparison between the divisive historical Meek, and our current times (or at least our former president). I didn't really care about drawing modern comparisons (though I wondered about the choosing of the phrase "stay the course"), I simply looked at the movie self contained, and liked it a great deal.