Tenacious indie Kelly Reichardt has specialized in quirky, minimalist quasi-road movies in which loners come unmoored in some great American space. Meek's Cutoff is that and more — one great leap into the 19th-century unknown. The members of a small wagon train crossing the Oregon Trail in 1845 follow their bombastic, wrong-headed guide into the desert, where, as one of the party scratches on a rock in the movie's first scene, they are "lost."
Directed from Jon Raymond's fact-based script, this suggestively allegorical, discreetly trippy Western recalls Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and even Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God in its evocation of frontier surrealism and manifest-destiny madness; the Reichardt approach is, however, more stringent and pointed in its weirdness. Her emphasis is on process, monotony, and mind-bending isolation. Chris Blauvelt's camera lingers on the three settler women (Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, and Zoe Kazan), alt-Bedouin in their protective gingham dresses and heavy bonnets, searching for firewood and then dutifully trudging on (and on) behind their husbands' covered wagons. Water runs low, the horses tire, and the pioneers dump their possessions to lighten the load. A young boy stumbles on a precious nugget — but, as someone says, you can't drink gold.
Meek's Cutoff has a few beautifully understated images of cooperation as the settlers drag their wagons across the scrub brush, but the movie's major concern is the problem of bad leadership. Having split off from a larger wagon train, the party elected to follow Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), an extravagantly hirsute, self-regardingly loquacious guide who, in his most obvious misjudgment, brings them not to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains but to the shores of a great saline lake. Is he "ignorant or just plain evil?" the Williams character asks her husband (Will Patton). "We can't know... We made our decision," he tells her. "I don't blame him for not knowing — I blame him for saying he did," she replies, establishing herself as the party's moral compass.
History has taken a turn; events come to a head when the settlers stumble upon and are compelled to take captive an unarmed Indian scout. They regard this irredeemable Other (impassively played by Crow stunt artist Rod Rondeaux) with suspicion bordering on panic, as a sort of intelligent animal. At the same time, he's the material projection of the unforgiving, unknowable wilderness in which they find themselves. The Indian has not even Pidgin English, although he converses with the moon and is adept at reading the landscape for signs. Who will lead them out of the desert — the boastful blowhard Meek or this enigmatic native? Votes are taken; guns appear. Thanks in part to Jeff Grace's spare, spacey score, Meek's Cutoff has a tranced-out quality, but the political implications, regarding trust given and abused, are hard to miss.
"We're all just playing our parts now," Meek declares just before the movie ends. "This was written long before we got here." Cinematic as it is, Meek's Cutoff has an uncanny theatricality. The scenes alternating between windswept emptiness and the dark void could be played on a barren stage. For all its detailed authenticity, this minimalist Wagon Train is less naturalistic than existential. Typically shown in long shot, these wanderers are not so much dwarfed by the landscape in which they find themselves as surrounded by its silence and imprisoned in its nothingness.