A large segment of the Meek's Cutoff audience—namely those who were in middle school during the late '80s and early '90s—won't make it past the first 30 seconds of the film without thinking, "Hey, I've played this game before." It's an unfair but inevitable comparison, what with the oxen and the covered wagons and the fording of a river and the fact that these pioneers are actually on the Oregon Trail. You'll be momentarily transported back to the countless hours spent in front of that Apple IIE monitor as your wagon party plodded along the trail, suffered through dysentery and splurged on about 10 times the ammunition you actually required.
Thankfully, it doesn't take long for the film to smack away any semblance of electronic nostalgia, replaced by a feeling of selfish relief that that we don't live in a time where family heirlooms must be tossed wayside in order to lighten the load or where a broken axle means another day without water. It's in those first few silent minutes of Meek's Cutoff—in panning long shots of creaky wagons rolling across the sun-baked high desert of Oregon—that it becomes clear this is a film we will not so much watch, but experience.
If you prefer gunfights, outlaws and colorful dialogue in your Westerns, go watch the wonderful True Grit remake. You'll get none of that here in a film that demands patience for its profoundly minimalist ways but which rewards it just the same.
The plot is this: It's 1845 and seven easterners are being led by the contract guide Stephen Meek on the Oregon Trail, destined (they hope) for the lush Willamette Valley. They are lost and almost out of water. There are exactly two gunshots in the film—warning shots, really—each fired by Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), the closest thing Meek's Cutoff has to a protagonist. And those shots are fired consecutively in real time, allowing us to experience firsthand the laborious effort of reloading a musket. It's a scene as meticulous as the rest of the film.
The genius of Meek's Cutoff—as crafted by director Kelly Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond—is in the amazing display of confidence that day-to-day life in the early days of the Oregon Trail is enough to fasten together a devastatingly gripping film. And while it certainly helps to be a history buff with an interest in the excruciating details of 19th century exploration, it is by no means a prerequisite.
Emily and Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton) are one of three couples nearing the end of the infamous wagon route. A young boy is among the party of seven, as is the very pregnant Glory White (Shirley Henderson), who nevertheless walks in stride behind the wagons with the other women. There actually was a trader and guide by the name of Stephen Meek, though it's unclear whether he was the grizzled eccentric portrayed here by an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood. By the time it's clear that they've taken a wrong turn en route to the Cascades, water supplies are already dangerously low and mistrust toward the guide is growing. "Is he ignorant or evil?" asks Emily as they trudge along. "I don't blame him for not knowing [the route], I blame him for saying he did."
Such is the suspicion that slowly permeates the band of weary travelers as a supposed five-day trek through the desert nears its third week. By the time they chase and apprehend an American Indian who has been watching them along the way, the group is faced with a new quandary: follow the native in hopes he will lead them to water, or follow the man who later became infamous for his not-so-short shortcut.
Resolutions don't come easy in Meek's Cutoff, but what does become clear is the collective effort required to succeed on the Oregon Trail. And Reichardt is intent on making sure we see every little detail as desperation sets in. When the wagons must be lowered down a steep incline, she doesn't show us how they lowered one of them, but rather all three. It's a brutal, six- or seven-minute scene the likes of which other directors wouldn't spend more than 30 seconds on. And with such deliberate and detailed storytelling, is it any surprise that the emotional climax of the film involves water spilling from a storage barrel? It's a scene of well-earned angst.
Aided by the always reliable Williams as the emotional soul of a beaten down group, Meek's Cutoff will leave you feeling as parched at the thirsty pioneers. At times it's hard to enjoy, but it's impossible to leave without feeling impressed, and probably a little tired from the journey.
Meek's Cutoff continues at the Wilma.