“Oregon Trail: The Movie” is a crude way to describe “Meek’s Cutoff,” but it’s an apt comparison. Writer/director Kelly Reichardt endeavors to pull the viewer into the hardscrabble slog of the settler, crossing endless terrain with oxen and wagons, always on a desperate hunt for supplies and water. However, “Oregon Trail” was just a game with a reset function. “Meek’s Cutoff” is austere and unforgiving — frankly, it’s as close to prairie reality as I care to get.
The year is 1845, and a team of settlers looking for their fortune in Oregon is crossing the country, led by tracker Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who’s elected to forge his own path. Now lost within the high plane desert, the group, including resentful Emily (Michelle Williams) and steadfast Soloman (Will Patton), struggles with unbelievable environmental and interpersonal hardship, while slowly succumbing to dehydration. Assistance arrives in the form of a captured Native American (Rod Rondeaux), a man Meek wants to murder while Soloman looks to trust, putting the team in the hands of their sworn enemy, hoping the warrior might lead them to water.
“Meek’s Cutoff” is film of ragged movement, not one of high drama. Reichardt has made a career out of these idiosyncratic feature films, with “Wendy and Lucy” and “Old Joy” equally as painstakingly observational, permitting the viewer to explore the protracted moment, interpreting modest fragments of behavior. It’s a specialized moviegoing experience, with this latest film a particularly evocative feature that takes to a rough road of survival, trudging along a barren stretch of America for 100 minutes of endurance and questioning.
Reichardt has designed a stubborn, glacial motion picture, and anyone with the attention span of a hummingbird would be wise to keep their distance. For those in possession of substantial patience, “Meek’s Cutoff ” is spare, haunting film that truly recreates a weathered drive in American history, forgoing melodrama to live in the moment with these characters as they carry on an unknown path, trusting in faith and perseverance, while their instincts scream from within, furious with Meek’s clumsy bravado and leadership. We watch as panic and resentment sets in, along with desperation when water begins to run out.
Beyond the misery, there’s also daily life to examine, with washing, knitting, and coffee making forming a time-consuming routine, while an act of reloading a rifle eats up several minutes of the running time. “Meek’s Cutoff” is a picture of extraordinary detail and deliberate execution, rewarding the brave with a rare screen realism that’s hypnotic.
There’s a conflict of sorts to form a story, with the Native American character used to divide the settlers from Meek and his saddle-sore worldly ways. It’s a meager offering of tension, but one the film handles well, creating some mystery as to where the warrior’s allegiance truly resides, with some fearing an impending attack, while Soloman holds to respect as a way of connection.
“Meek’s Cutoff” depicts settler life in all its encrusted, askew beauty, found under a harsh sun that blows out all the color from the land. It takes a special mood to endure the travel, but it’s a rare film achievement, creating a bitter sense of screen poetry while sipping the fatigued survival efforts of grueling era.