Director Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff is not an action picture or a conventional Western, any more than The Assassination of Jesse James was a typical Jesse James film.
Meek’s Cutoff is based on the actual misfortunes of a handful of wagon train settlers who were detoured by their guide, Stephen Meek, through the Oregon High Desert in 1845. As water and food became scarcer, and the confidence in their guidegrew thinner, the emigrants stood against Meek (Bruce Greenwood). The picture reflects some of the details of the history and adds an Indian (Rod Rondeaux), who may or may not have some idea of where the water might be. Since the Indian doesn’t speak any English, faith in his ability to do what Meek couldn’t divides the settlers.
The movie is about more than the suspense of whether the wagon train finds water, or a better trail. It’s about the dissolution of Meek’s (and the men’s) authority and the shift in group dynamics, especially in the person of Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), who steps forward to forge a relationship with the Indian. The film is smart and haunting, and, if nothing else, it’s probably more accurate in its depiction of the tedium and uncertainty of daily life and survival in a struggling wagon train than anything ever seen on screen.