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Meek’s Cutoff is a road movie—just one that’s set in 1845. Directed by Kelly Reichardt and written by her frequent collaborator Jon Raymond, it’s a spare, 19th-century Wendy and Lucy, a barely-there story that follows three families as they make their way across the Oregon Trail. Or, rather, eschew it as they try to take a shortcut. Obviously, this isn’t the best idea.
Led by a blowhard named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, unrecognizable with his explosion of facial hair), the would-be settlers trust that he knows his way across the Oregon desert, and where to find water. But they travel the dusty no-man’s land blindly, their water supply ever-dwindling along with their patience. The men (including Paul Dano and Will Patton) trust him, as do the meeker women (Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson). But Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy’s star) ain’t no fool. She knows they’re lost and she’s pissed about it. “I don’t blame him for not knowing,” she tells the others. “I blame him for saying he did.”
Another controversy stirs up when Emily spots and shoots at an Indian, whom they eventually capture. Meek wants to kill him, citing him as an enemy from the most malevolent tribe. “Even Indians despise these Indians,” he says, convinced the man is leaving clues for the rest of his tribe to find and murder them. But Emily and the others see a potential ally, one who knows the land and could save them. Emily starts feeding the Indian and repairing his boots. When the others look at her like she’s crazy, she responds, “I want him to owe me something.”
Since this is a Kelly Reichardt film, there’s little dialogue (none, in fact, for the first seven minutes): Most of the action comprises the settlers trudging along with their wagons and cattle across empty, wide-shot vistas. There’s only ambient sound—the wind, the animals, the splashing of what little water they have—and night scenes are lit by firelight. There are themes of power struggle and proto-feminism, which Reichardt and Raymond try to convey as minimally as they can.
Unlike Wendy and Lucy, however, Meek’s Cutoff doesn’t grip you emotionally. You see the settlers’ dirty, weathered hands and their obvious weariness, but you sympathize— a tad—instead of empathize. For all their collaborative strain, the characters don’t interact much, and besides Emily, none really stand out. With the men in beards and hats and the women in giant bonnets-as-blinders, in fact, the film could have cast no-names and gotten the same result. Williams, and especially Henderson and Kazan, are wasted.
Allergic to Hollywood storytelling conventions, Reichardt ends the film with a nonending, which might have worked if the preceding slice-of-life had been more satisfying. But just like the settlers, Meek’s Cutoff is stuck on a road to nowhere.