For the first several minutes of Meek’s Cutoff, the only sound of significance is that of a loudly flowing river. We see a wagon train cross it, slowly and with care, as it makes no compromises for children or animals, but of course, it gives as well as obstructs, providing much-needed water to the group. When the train eventually moves on after filling up, a long shot of the river in the foreground demonstrates not only its immutability, but the fact that it’s already forgotten the travelers. However, the reverse will prove to be far from true.
This dialogue-free opening sets the stage for a stark picture of pioneers tackling the Oregon Trail, one made more grim by the knowledge that they’re lost from the beginning. Whispered conversations about their leader, Steven Meek (Bruce Greenwood, not particularly recognizable underneath a graying 49er beard), make it clear that none of them trust him; in fact, there’s talk about how they might already have hanged him for leading them so far astray if they didn’t think they’d be even farther up shit’s creek without him. That may sound excessive, but director Kelly Reichart (Wendy And Lucy) does a great job in conveying the tedium and distraction of the march and the effects of same – there’s a wheel or bucket or something that squeaks its way right through you when the caravan is moving; it almost minced my sanity and I probably only heard it for a total of five minutes. And Sarah mentioned in her review how “implacably large” the film’s country looks — it reminds me of a family film I saw as a child called Across The Great Divide that also involved a trek to Oregon and was very visually reminiscent of what we see here. (How weird it is to read a review from a time that predates the term “Native American.”) But when Meek leads the water-deprived group across some alkali flats to a river that’s, well, alkaline, the group reaches a crisis point, further complicated by their capture of an Indian (Rod Rondeaux, and okay, I’ll use the parlance of the film) who seems to mean them little harm yet whom certain members of the group, most of all Meek, want to eliminate.
From here, the story becomes slightly less focused on the land and the journey and more on a study of what makes a leader. Although Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton) has advised that the group keep the Indian alive for his potential ability to lead them to water, it’s his wife Emily (Michelle Williams) who, by incremental amounts, takes command, in fact if not in name — no small feat, not just because of gender attitudes at the time but also the sun bonnet she wears that allows less peripheral vision than a dog cone. This part of the film is a subtle look into what qualities can come forth from people in crisis, as well as what traits draw people to follow others, all viewed through a slow-burn lens that lets you fully experience the nuances; Emily’s not fueled by the adrenaline that comes with the prospect of sudden and immediate death, but she’s able to see the big picture without giving in to emotion in a way the others can’t. Ironically, then, Emily’s initial attitude toward the Indian is strongly influenced by her distaste for Meek; it’s not that she trusts him, but she trusts Meek far less, and there’s a sense of contrariness in what immediately follows. She shows kindness to the Indian by bringing him water and mending his torn boot, and while she’s clear in her own mind that she hopes for something in return, most everyone else in the group is too afraid to make a move like this, not just of the Indian but of how the rest of them might react. When the Indian speaks in his own language, Emily’s the only one who thinks he’s directing them benevolently, or at least the only one with the guts to say so. And when Meek decides to take matters into his own hands and kill the Indian, it’s Emily who stops him – everyone else is paralyzed, not necessarily by fear but definitely by lack of willingness to take a stand. As Emily, Williams never grandstands, unlike Meek the blowhard, but she has the courage of her convictions. Often movies shorthand the ways in which characters get respect, but this feels earned.
The downside of having so little dialogue is that some of the characters feel short-changed. Paul Dano, whom I always love, does make a reasonable impression, and Greenwood is given plenty to do, even if the character is not going to be anyone’s favorite. But while no one else comes off as more than a cipher, maybe it’s the point that their characters are weak – we can understand why, having seen so clearly what they’ve had to endure. In the end, the land has as little sympathy for them as ever, but if they survive, it won’t just be due to the placid Indian, but to Emily as well.