Away from the wagon train, three women are viewed from a distance, their gingham dresses billowing in the dry wind, their faces obscured by bonnets. They walk in silence, perhaps contemplating where the day’s travels will take them; to their destination—or their doom. It’s one of a series of composed sequences that express the bleak despair of a group of pioneers trying to cross the harsh Oregon desert. In Meek’s Cutoff, set in 1845, three families traveling in covered wagons lose their way after losing confidence in their frontiersman guide. Images—of the baked earth, of wagon wheels needing repair, of campfires made from tumbleweeds—tell more than the spare narrative, in which almost nothing happens except the daily struggle for survival. Director Kelly Reichardt began as a photographer, and she lets the camera reveal all the nuances of wagon team’s dangerous trek into uncharted territory.
The film begins after several weeks into a journey that was expected to take several days. The cutoff (or shortcut) of the title is known only to Stephen Meek (an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood), a boastful adventurer under contract to lead three families into the Oregon territory. Meek’s leadership is challenged by Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton) and later by his young wife, Emily (Michelle Williams, left). The stoical Tetherows are traveling with a younger, more devout couple, the Gatelys (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) and the older Whites (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson, right) and their son, Jimmy (Tommy Nelson).
As their water barrels empty, the families grow more suspicious of their guide, and a strange tension develops, most noticeably between Meek and Emily. The hardscrabble terrain is relieved only by rocky cliff sides with little indication of what might lie beyond the horizon. Mrs. Gately’s canary stops singing, the oxen weaken, and fears of an Indian attack increase after a lone Cayuse is spotted trailing the covered wagons. The film is propelled by an eerie uncertainty: The wagoneers don’t know where they are, or where they are going, or who can be trusted to lead them to safety.
Meek’s Cutoff can be viewed like a Western counterpart to Peter Weir’s enigmatic classic Picnic at Hanging Rock (also loosely based on a true story), yet Reichardt and her co-writer, Jonathan Raymond, are too severe in their minimalism. It’s frustrating, not enriching, to know so little about the characters, especially considering the subtle caliber of the acting. The evocative cinematography creates a tone poem to the high plains, while the story is left adrift.