A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
To set aside its many other accomplishments, "Meek's Cutoff" is the first film I've seen that evokes what must have been the reality of wagon trains to the West. They were grueling, dirty, thirsty, burning and freezing ordeals. Attacks by Indians were not the greatest danger; accidents and disease were. Over the years from watching movie Westerns, I've developed a composite image of wagon trains as Conestoga parades led by John Wayne, including lots of women wearing calico dresses, and someone singing "Red River Valley" beside the campfire.
Not here. Director Kelly Reichardt's strategy is to isolate her story in the vastness of the Oregon Trail, where personalities seem to weaken in the force of the wilderness. She shows three families who bring reality to Robert Frost's phrase "vaguely realizing Westward." They gradually understand that they are hopelessly lost. Their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), boasts of his accomplishments, but members of the group sense that he is pushing ahead blindly in the hope that somehow the way through the Cascade Mountains will reveal itself.
The group includes Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams); her husband, Solomon (Will Patton); the young couple Millie and Thomas Gately (Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano), and the Whites, Glory, William and Jimmy (Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff and Tommy Nelson). In their wagons, they bring a few household furnishings, some clothes and a forlorn bird in a cage, whose pathetic smallness echoes their own in this landscape. The men withdraw to discuss their mistrust of Meek, and it is significant that Reichardt identifies with the women as they attempt to overhear what's said.
Her focus in general is on the "womenfolk," as Westerns liked to call them. She centers on Michelle Williams as Emily, and of course Reichardt and Williams worked together on "Wendy and Lucy," the evocative 2008 film about a drifter and her dog. Both films were written by Jonathan Raymond. Williams appears at first to be a slight, unprepossessing person, but in "Meek's Cutoff, " she then reveals inner certainty. She is sure their guide is lost, she is certain they face death by thirst, and it is she who determines how they must use an Indian (Rod Rondeaux) they capture: He will find water.