Kelly Reichardt’s last feature, 2008’s Wendy And Lucy, simply and methodically follows a young woman whose life is dangling on a precipice; with little money, the seemingly minor hassle of a car in need of repair leads to a series of devastating consequences. Reichardt’s astonishing new film, Meek’s Cutoff, broadens the scope and raises the stakes tenfold, expanding beautifully on the same themes of survival and the terrible, life-threatening choices people have to make when their options narrow. Following three families on an arduous journey through the Cascade Mountains via the Oregon Trail in 1845, Reichardt adopts the austerity and pace of Gus Van Sant’s “death trilogy,” especially Gerry, which also conveyed the sheer ardor of traveling on foot to a water source that’s perpetually beyond the horizon. Yet Meek’s Cutoff isn’t a minimalist experiment: Instead, it advances a story full of tension and slow-burning suspense, as the fates of weary pioneers rest in the hands of two men of dubious intent.
Reichardt again casts Wendy And Lucy star Michelle Williams as a woman forced to make difficult decisions, but surrounds her with a fuller ensemble, including Will Patton as her husband, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan as the heads of a second family, and Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson leading a third. Traveling in a caravan of covered wagons, with wheels that whine like the windmill at the opening of Once Upon A Time In The West, the three families have entrusted the grizzled, beastly Meek of the title (played by a nearly unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood) with guiding them along the uncertain path. As days become weeks without the progress they were promised, the travelers, Williams most prominently, begin to question Greenwood’s competence and even suspect him of evil. When they capture a Native American (Rod Rondeaux), there’s fierce debate over whether to kill him or use him to help find a water source.
Reichardt masterfully undercuts the urgency of their situation with its grim realities: Their water supply is dwindling, but getting over that next hill requires dragging three wagons’ worth of people and supplies over rough terrain, with zero margin for error. Meek’s Cutoff is excruciating in the best possible sense, adopting a pace that’s entirely appropriate to the endless expanse, but nonetheless suffused with suspicion and dread every step of the way. It also revels meaningfully in period detail, not just for authenticity’s sake, but as a way of conveying the physical hardships of prairie life. Meticulous and immersive, Meek’s Cutoff feels like history in three dimensions.