It’s a slow, occasionally meandering film that doesn’t offer a lot of definitive plot points for the first 45 minutes or so. A group of settlers travelling west in 1845 takes a shortcut that gets them lost. Soon, getting to their destination has taken a back seat to finding water.
Director Kelly Reichardt follows the group as they trudge solemnly through the desert, slowed by seemingly mundane tasks: replacing a broken wagon axel, camping for the night, feeding their oxen teams. They’ve been led astray by their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who boasts of his many experiences but may have no idea where he is.
Dialogue is sparse, and often difficult to make out: The story is largely told through the eyes of Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), and the womenfolk aren’t typically involved in the decision-making processes. As such, they listen to the men debating their fate from a respectful distance, understanding only fragments of the conversation.
But then, at some point, Meek’s Cutoff reveals itself as an incredibly tense and compelling piece of cinema. It’s hard to identify the exactly when this happens, but before you know it a group of 19th-century settlers carefully easing their wagons down a steep hill is one of the most riveting scenes you can imagine. By this point, everyone in the film feels real, and the stakes are impossibly high: If things go any more wrong, or don’t start to go right, people are going to die.
It’s a lot like watching The Wire: you go along with the first few episodes because they’re interesting, if not particularly eventful. But then, before you know it, people are dropping dead, no one knows where Wallace is, and you couldn’t stop watching if you wanted. Meek’s Cutoff takes hold of you the same way, except that there’s less violence since it takes everyone a minute to reload their gun after shooting it.
The film’s dynamic certainly changes when the group crosses paths with a native (Rod Rondeaux). Most of the settlers are afraid, while Meek advocates killing the man, backing up his opinion with tales of bloodthirsty savage depravity. But he probably knows where to find water, and ultimately a bargain is struck – or as much of a bargain as can be struck when the parties speak different languages. Urged on by promises of blankets, and not being shot, he takes them in a new direction, though the party continues to debate whether he’s leading them to salvation or merely waiting for the opportunity to murder everyone.
Rondeaux gives an interesting performance. He speaks no English – and is, appropriately, never subtitled – and you could interpret his actions as a man who expects to die, who’s plotting his escape, or is making the best of a bad situation and honestly leading the strange white people to water. No one gets overly chummy; even when Emily helps and defends him, it’s out of self-interest: having decided that Meek is leading them to their death, she has little choice but to believe the savage indian will lead them to salvation.
Along the way, Reichardt presents some lovely scenes of the American West’s wasteland, creating some surprisingly compelling sequences of people merely travelling. Meek’s Cutoff isn’t really about plot developments and action, nor is the ultimate destination of the party all that important. It’s about the journey, and the amazing things that can happen along the way. If you have a little patience, and don’t require that easily discernible and eventful things happen at regular, frequent intervals, this is an incredibly rewarding film.