Meek's Cutoff: Michelle Williams Hits the Oregon Trail in a New American Classic

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Oscilloscope Pictures / Everett Collection

From left: Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams in Meeks Cutoff.

Director Kelly Reichardt loves a road trip, particularly one in trouble. Meek's Cutoff, which recreates the westward journey of nineteenth-century settlers, is her first period picture, but as in her films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, her subjects are lost souls wandering Oregon. In terms of cast size and logistics — Reichardt recreates the journey of Western-bound settlers — Meek's constitutes what seems to be her biggest effort to date. But the film remains very much of her style: it's a deceptively small piece of onscreen art that resonates afterward with such insistence that I felt positively nagged by it. Because Reichardt leaves it open-ended, I kept having the illogical urge to get back to the film — as if it were a half-read story that could be picked up again.

The year is 1845, and three wagonloads of families are slowly, painfully making their way across the Oregon High Desert, led by a bushy-bearded pontificator named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Meek is a guide and trapper who claims to know a short cut to the Columbia River, but he appears as new to this land as they are. Water supplies are low. Everyone is exhausted and miserable. Paranoia and doubt run rampant — some wonder if Meek is deliberately misleading them — but they have no choice but to plod on. "Is he ignorant, or just plain evil?" wonders Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams). An encounter with an unnamed Native American (Ron Rondeaux) might represent absolute ruin, or hope.

Part of the reason Reichardt's films are so satisfying is the sense of connectivity between them; her gentle but penetrating investigation of humanity extends a little farther with each one. The sameness of her themes never feels like repetition; rather, it feels like going deeper. In Old Joy, Kurt (Will Oldham), a permanent rebel who's aging shaggily through his 30s, leads an old friend into the Cascade Mountains in search of an elusive hot springs and restoration of their relationship. Kurt is like Meek: attached to no one, but somehow needy. Neither Kurt nor Meek want to be the bad guy.

Of the women in Meek's Cutoff, only Emily seems like a survivor, practical and decisive. When the going gets rough and she has to shove possessions out the back of the wagon to lighten the load, she does so silently, without complaint. (Williams, an actress who thrives on quiet like no other, starred in Wendy and Lucy, where she also had to let go of ballast.) By contrast, you get the sense that Zoe Kazan's dithering Millie would part with any of her human companions before jettisoning her pet bird.

Emily is recently married to Solomon (Will Patton), the closest thing the group has to a leader outside of Meek. When Solomon goes off into the brush to discuss their problems with the other men, the wives strain to overhear. I did, too, and not just there — Reichardt's dedication to ambient sounds, like dry grass and gravel crunching underfoot, is unwavering. Eventually I embraced it, the same way I accepted the lack of introductions and disorientation of starting with the emigrants already lost. The mood takes over so thoroughly that I half-expected to have a sunburn at the end.

Screenwriter Jon Raymond, Reichardt's regular collaborator, incorporated real names and details documented through diaries and records of Oregon Trail journeys, including a plaintive "LOST" that one of the emigrants carved into a sun-bleached tree trunk and the discovery of what might have been gold at a time when the imperative was water. The big change he made was in numbers: Meek started with 200 wagons and families, and though many peeled off into different factions, his final group still had about 40 wagons. Given Reichardt's desire for verisimilitude within budget constraints —at the end of the shoot, the costume designer returned a sewing machine to the superstore where she'd bought it — working with a cast this size seems to have been a rational decision.

If there had been any more wagons to fix or coffee to grind, the audience might have felt as desperate for the end as the emigrants. "How many days?" they keep asking Meek, as if there were an answer to be had. Meek's Cutoff reminded me in flashes of old classics like 1924's Greed, which trapped us in Death Valley, and more recent ones such as There Will Be Blood, which made us feel the physical hardship of pioneering. But this one cuts curiously close to the bone of modern America. Sure, we've got our gizmos that tell us exactly where we are and how long it will take to get where we're going — even ones that allow us to play virtual pioneers on the Oregon Trail. But we still plod along behind our leaders, full of doubt and dismay, trying to renew our hope in the face of obstacles.