The year is 1845, the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, and a wagon team of three families has hired the mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. Straggly-haired, bushy-faced, and full of bluff and bluster, and claiming to know a short cut, Meek leads the uncertain group on an unmarked path across the high plain desert, only to become lost in the dry rock and sage.
Over the coming days, the emigrants must face the scourges of hunger, thirst and their own lack of faith in each other’s instincts for survival. They are torn in their doubts about Meek, who seems to be a synthesis of General Custer and Wild Bill Hickok.
When a Native American wanderer (Rod Rondeaux) crosses their path, the emigrants are torn between their trust in a guide who has proven himself unreliable and a man who has always been seen as the natural enemy. Out of the certainty, it is one of the ‘womenfolk,’ Emily, (Michelle Williams) who takes a more decisive hand in trying to determine their fate.
While the pacing may be as languorous as the wagon train’s progress through the desert, director Reichardt achieves an escalating tension, whether it is in the execution of everyday chores, to hushed discussions about the pioneers’ fate or in worried glances that betray doubts, or in just plain simple silences. As their situation grows more and more desperate, so does the suspense.
Meek’s Cutoff represents the second collaboration between Michelle Williams and director Reichardt, who worked previously on the critically acclaimed, Wendy and Lucy. The films share a common element---they are road movies that take their protagonists and the audiences to unexpected places.
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