Black-oxen-pulled covered wagons fording a river; bonnets and baskets atop women's heads; a pregnant woman drying clothes in dusty, tall grass; a man spilling buckets of water into a brown barrel; a bright-yellow canary hopping in a cage; a younger man carving "LOST" into a weathered grey log; the caravan rolling along at a walking pace: this is how director Kelly Reichardt handles exposition in her Oregon Trail period piece Meek's Cutoff. These long opening shots — nearly silent aside from the creak of wagon wheels and breezing wind — tell us everything we need to know: a wagon team has gone astray from the path.
If you expect Meek's Cutoff to neatly resolve that issue (or for things to work out for the canary), this is probably not the film for you. The ensemble of travelers — played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, among others — are led by a bearded guide Meek (Bruce Greenwood). While looking for water and arguing about whether or not they're actually lost, they come across a Native American man. The journey continues, day after day. Meek's Cutoff is a film about being lost, not about finding the path. This subtle but daring narrative choice distinguishes Meek's Cutoff from clichéd Westerns.
Few directors working today are talented enough to make a compelling film about a few lost people wandering in the wilderness. Reichardt is a minimalist director in the same manner that Raymond Carver was a minimalist writer — extraneous details and dialogue and scenes are absent, leaving only the raw husk of a story. We see the dirt building up on the women's bright dresses. The bewilderment of dehydration is inflected in simple conversation. Campfire flickers orange on faces. Any romance harbored about the expansive promise of the American West is whittled away in the presence of a beautiful but brutal landscape.
Like her last two films — Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy — Meek's Cutoff is adapted from Jon Raymond's short stories and set in Oregon. Taken as a loose trilogy, these films express a singular, articulate vision of America. They all express a quiet melancholy — rarely does Reichardt show someone successfully or happily connecting with another — but they are filled with hopeful characters.
Meek's Cutoff expresses that American hopefulness in Biblical terms. Seated at a campfire near the beginning of the film, the gravel-voiced Meek nearly yells at his fellow emigrants, "The land you're headed for is a regular second Eden. If you long for riches one day, you just plunge your hands into the ground!" It would be wrong to simplify and say that these hopeful, American dreams are crushed; Reichardt is a much more nuanced and ambiguous filmmaker than that. Meek's Cutoff, as with her other films, shows Americans learning the difficult lesson that hope isn't enough.