A small group of pioneers are heading westward to settle in a distant valley, and have become lost in the harsh Northwestern terrain near Oregon. Their guide, a garrulous old trapper named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), refuses to admit that he's led the party astray, and the others have no choice but to keep following him. Supplies run short and the need to find water becomes urgent. Tensions among the pioneers begin to mount, especially when they capture an Indian (Rod Rondeaux) who surely has the knowledge to save them, but who they have no means of communicating with.
"Meek's Cutoff" can be characterized as a minimalist Western, or perhaps a feminist subversion of the genre, since it is largely told from the point of view of Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), one of the three women in the party. However, such labels strike me as too constricting. The film has some elements of a western, but is more accurately described as a pioneer story. It is loosely based on an especially harsh incident in American history - the arduous blazing of a new wagon road by a party early settlers who were hopelessly lost for weeks. Director Kelly Reichardt reduces the hundreds who originally traveled Meek's Cutoff to only seven settlers traveling with three covered wagons and a collection of animals. In addition to Emily and her husband Soloman, (Will Patton), they are Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan), and William and Glory White (Neal Huff, Shirley Henderson) with their young son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson). Their struggles become an epic in miniature, each misfortune a microcosm for larger and weightier events.
Reichardt is known for exploring difficult themes and ideas by stripping them down to bare essentials and very personal, immediate dilemmas. Looking at "Meek's Cutoff" on a surface level, the bulk of the running time is taken up by a series of simple events, some that play out very slowly. Striking long shots watch the characters moving over the desert landscapes or in periods of rest. Dialogue is initially sparse, and it takes a little while to place familiar actors garbed in period clothing and quietly stoic personas. I totally failed to recognize Bruce Greenwood, hidden behind a matted beard and thick accent. However, the picture is roiling with drama, and quickly embroils the audience in the plight of its characters. They're lost. They're low on water. The women silently watch the men discuss their options, and as the situation worsens they begin to speak up themselves. Power shifts and entrenched attitudes begin to change.
Because the narrative is so unconventional, some viewers are likely to be confused by its intentions. Aside from a tense confrontation in the final reel, the story appears to be short on action and without resolution. Characterization often only comes across in small details and brief interactions. These can be easily missed or misinterpreted. Moreover, the pace is often achingly slow and it's quite possible that the group is literally traveling in circles. However, "Meek's Cutoff" is extremely involving once it starts raising the stakes and certain characters realize their own agency. The slow burn may not build up to the kind of ending that the audience expects, but it's a shrewd and effective one. Meek and Emily Tetherow are the vital principals to pay attention to here, and the performances of Greenwood and Williams are stellar.
The filmmakers also deserve some major kudos for presenting an unromanticized version of the pioneer experience, fraught with uncertainty and constant danger. Never has the vast openness of the American West been more oppressive and unfriendly. The characters too, though they speak with dated language, do not conform to the mindset or behaviors that we associate with common portrayals of frontier settlers. The comforting aspirational talk spouted by Meek is roundly ignored, and no one is positioned as a classic heroic figure. Instead of forward-looking trailblazers, most of the settlers come across as terribly young and foolhardy, and clearly not prepared for the ordeals they face.
"Meek's Cutoff" can be easily viewed as a parable for many different ongoing conflicts. I wouldn't be surprised if Reichardt's intention was for the film to be subtle social commentary on a variety of issues. However, I think the most valuable contribution it makes is simply taking on the historical material from a different point of view, and not even a particularly cynical or subversive one. I can't remember the last time I saw a pioneer story without some kind of patriotic or sentimental bent, and it's gratifying to see Reichardt cut through those notions so efficiently.