I was more than a little surprised to find out that director Kelly Reichardt's next film would be set in 1845. On the Oregon Trail. Like her previous film, Wendy and Lucy, the movie takes place in Oregon and centers on a journey, but all those bonnets and wagons in Meek's Cutoff threw me for a loop. The film centers on three families traversing the Oregon Trail in the route's early days. They have enlisted a wilderness man as a guide, but he has them lost in the middle of the desert without water. One of the settlers (Michelle Williams) spots an Indian, and fights against having him killed. She wants him as a guide. But will he be able to get them to water in time?
Meek's Cutoff touches on certain aspects of the Western genre, but lightly. Reichardt isn't trying to make an anti-Western, but rather provide a window into the day-to-day life of settlers. The days on the trail unfold with the precision, detail, and quiet of an Italian neorealist film. You feel the significance and tedium of the daily chores as if you were a settler yourself. Meek's Cutoff is also unique for its portrayal of women. Williams displays some of the spunk and initiative of the young Mattie Ross in True Grit, but Reichardt takes care to point out how customs exclude the women from decision-making. In more than one scene, the men discuss what to do next, while the women stand back a distance, unconsulted. Instead they listen, but with the concentration of someone calculating their next chess move.
As with Wendy and Lucy, watching Meek's Cutoff can feel a little tedious, since the movie focuses so much on minute details. While the tension builds, the ending is abrupt, which I kind of expected. There were no signs that the narrative would end up tied in a bow. Meek's Cutoff is best viewed as an experience, a museum exhibit with a point-of-view. While I was unclear on the historical background at the time, the title refers to a "shortcut" that guide Stephen Meek took 200 wagons and one thousand people through. Though they eventually navigated through the treacherous terrain, over twenty people died. I assume that the movie limited itself to three wagons for budgetary reasons, but it ends up providing added dramatic impact. With just nine people on the screen, it's easier to see how alone and lost these settlers are. In the desert, I'm sure the settlers felt alone even with a thousand people, which registers as a giant crowd on screen.
The Oscilloscope Laboratories release premiered at Sundance, where the wild landscape of the surrounding area must have provided a pause--how the West has changed in the past 150 years. The movie will release this Friday in New York City, with additional cities to follow.