Meek’s Cutoff (2011) – The time is 1845. The place: the Oregon Trail. Three frontier families ford a river in the high desert. They wordlessly, almost morosely, march across, then take the opportunity to fill canteens, wash, and check the wagons before setting off again. These pilgrims in the desert are a long way from the Promised Land and their buckskin guide of a Moses, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, looking like a road show Buffalo Bill), talks a good story of frontier adventure but it’s clear to the three families of the tiny wagon train that his shortcut to the Willamette Valley has them lost in the desert.
Michelle Williams stars as Emily, the young wife of Soloman (Will Patton), an older man looking to start again in the new land, and while she is duly deferential in public, in private they share a healthy honesty in communication you suspect is absent in the other tents. One wife (Shirley Henderson) is pregnant and exhausted—they walk beside the wagons, not in them—and another (Zoe Kazan) on the verge of hysteria. And that’s before they realize they are running out of provisions and water and that a lone Native American is shadowing their train.
Kelly Reichardt, who directed Williams (and, in a small role, Patton) in Wendy and Lucy, and screenwriter Jon Raymond draw the story from history and the texture from the journals kept by the women, which gives the film its defining perspective. This is a story of day to day struggle and survival and the fear of not knowing if they’ll emerge alive. It’s a severe life in a hostile world, observed with such delicate detail that the film achieves a grace and poetry. But it is also a primal piece of filmmaking, wrought from dirt and rock and calico, illuminated by natural light and campfire.
Through it all, Reichardt watches, observes, lets us feel the passing of time and the tension of waiting. As the families dump their heaviest belongings to lighten the load, we feel the desperation to survive in their hard looks watching their treasures fade into the distance. And as they keep marching forward, we understand that hope is no longer part of the equation. They simply haven’t any other choice. There is the story of settling of the frontier in an image.