Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist western offers the distaff version of the traditional saddletramp horse opera in that it is the women who provide the focus and core of the tale.
It is 1845 and three couples are travelling in wagon train fashion across the desert wilderness of the Oregon Trail. Guiding them is Stephen Meek, a grizzled wild man fond of spinning what appear to be suspiciously embellished yarns about his background.
Meek is seeking a cutoff – a shortcut that will save time and get his people to their end destination. But the men and women following him are increasingly concerned that he is lost. Water becomes their prize. And when a Native American crosses their path they are torn over whether to stick with their guide – a white man – or place their trust in an enemy.
Indie darling Reichardt consolidates her position as a director of low-budget dramas with Meek’s Cutoff, which is drawn from diaries of women who accompanied their menfolk on the journey to a new land.
She focuses on three couples – the Tetherows, the Gatelys and the Whites – as they struggle to maintain sight of their shared goal. What emerges is a clear division between men and women. The males make the decisions whilst the females, isolated and harried, are left to the monotony of their daily drudgery.
Yet the story is told via the women’s experiences. The triumvirate comprises Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson who bring depth and emotion to a script that is more about looks and feelings than dialogue, which is pared to the bone.
The men – Will Patton, Paul Dano and Neal Huff, with Bruce Greenwood as the bedraggled Meek – stumble ever onward toward oblivion, trusting to what they think they know allied to an inbred prejudice.
The combination of a largely featureless landscape, minimal action and limited cast makes for a measured journey that often appears little more than a leisurely travelogue through sparse terrain.
Yet Reichardt and regular collaborator Jon Raymond have fashioned a plausible (and allegorical) period piece from mood, atmosphere and suspicion, the latter becoming increasingly important as the pioneers begin to realise that a white man may not have all the answers.