A few minutes pass in Meek's Cutoff before the first audible words of dialogue are uttered, and it's even longer before two characters have the first conversation. In that time, we simply watch as the three pioneer families at the centre of this story slowly drive their wagons forward across rivers and the stark, arid landscape of the Oregon Trail. We see them gathering water, washing their clothes, eating and tending to the animals in their care. Director Kelly Reichardt allows these mundane actions to play out at her own pace, slowly immersing us into the reality of their situation as the days drag on and the destination they have been trekking towards refuses to appear. We see one character disconsolately carving the word LOST onto the bark of a tree.
They are indeed hopelessly lost. The families hired a guide by the name of Meek (Bruce Greenwood, almost unrecognisable under his thick beard and thicker accent) to lead them through this terrain, but now they doubt that he knows exactly where he's leading them. He has no doubt in himself, however; Meek is an arrogant blowhard who delights in telling possibly apocryphal stories and boasting about the riches that exist forever out of each on the other side of the mountains. We don't know how long they have been travelling for, but it feels like a long time. They trudge forward with a sense of weariness and despair, and an increasing sense of mistrust towards the man they're following. "We ain't lost," Meek insists, "we're just finding our way."
Meek's Cutoff simultaneously feels like a departure for Kelly Reichardt and a development of her consistent themes. Once again, Reichardt tells a minimalist story of lost souls in a remote location, and she has reunited with trusted actors (Michelle Williams, Will Patton) with whom she has done great work before. It's a departure in the sense of the period setting, however, and in the fact that she appears to be taking her craft as a filmmaker to a higher level with this feature. The film's gradually developing sense of tension is established through Reichardt's careful camera placement, Jeff Grace's unsettling score and the ingenious sound design (when the men confer out of their wives' earshot, we only hear the snatches of dialogue that they do). While most filmmakers would shoot these spectacular mountain ranges and desolate expanses in widescreen, Reichardt and her brilliant cinematographer Chris Blauvelt film in 4:3, focusing our attentions on the people in the frame. Long scenes consist of little more than these characters wandering across the square screen, the wheels of their wagons creaking incessantly, but it is utterly transfixing to watch.
At a certain point in the film, the tone changes when a new element is brought into play. The group discover a Native American has been tracking their progress and they capture him, leading to a debate about how best to deal with him. Meek believes the "heathen" should be shot immediately, but the families, having lost faith in their own guide, believe he may be a better bet to lead them to salvation. They begin to follow him, even if they don't know whether they are travelling towards water or towards fellow members of his tribe. The Indian (played by Rod Rondeaux) is an inscrutable figure. We know nothing of his thoughts or plans; he just sits there observing his captors, sometimes displaying a curiosity about the objects they carry, sometimes smiling enigmatically as they argue around him. Where will he lead these pilgrims?
Reichardt isn't interested in answering such questions. The true meaning behind Meek's Cutoff remains slippery, with the director deliberately refusing to clearly define it and instead allowing the film to play out as an ambiguous allegory. Its elusiveness and lack of action will frustrate some viewers, but even they will surely be able to enjoy the formal brilliance of the film and the uniformly exceptional performances. (is there a better actress around right now than Michelle Williams? I don't think there is.) I'm sure many viewers of Meek's Cutoff will be similarly exasperated by the manner in which Reichardt brings her film to a close, but while the ending may be abrupt, the effect of its haunting final image lingers long in the memory.