‘Meek’s Cutoff’, the latest movie by Kelly Reichardt (‘Old Joy’, ‘Wendy and Lucy’), is loosely based on a true event that happened in 1845. A group of settlers following the Oregon Trail split from the main group and tried to take what was supposed to be a cutoff through the Oregon desert. The guide, named Stephen Meek, seemed to get lost, and the wagon train wandered through an inhospitable and harsh landscape, running out of food and water.
Director Reichardt, along with her longtime writer Jonathan Raymond, reduces the number of wagons to only three, carrying three couples and a kid. When the movie starts they are already lost and suspect that Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is just an unreliable braggart.
The plot doesn’t go much further. Reichardt keep it simple with few characters and little dialogue, focusing instead on what may have been to travel through the magnificent yet dry landscape of the Oregon desert with such scarce resources. The novelty of her point of view comes with the prominence role given to women in the movie, mainly to the character played by Michelle Williams, Emily Tetherow, whose reasoning contrasts with the bragging of Stephen Meek.
The cinematography and the slow-paced action rightly set the mood of the story, but this never fully develops. The movie tackles certain questions, like the role of women within the settlers or their attitude toward Indians, but the conclusion doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. That seems to be the intention of the director (raise more questions than answers) but makes the journey partially unsatisfying.