Upgrading her production values without compromising her minimalist style, Kelly Reichardt has nonetheless made her most accessible movie with “Meek’s Cutoff,” a spare, defiantly unconventional western that traffics in atmosphere and the subversion of expectations rather than any kind of easy resolution. Patient but never boring, the story follows a trio of families in 1845, lost along the Oregon Trail under the lackluster guidance of an enigmatic mountain man. Shifting the focus from the rampant masculinity associated with most westerns to the isolation of the women in the group, Reichardt crafts a highly textured narrative that both invokes the mythology of the American frontier and cleverly transcends it.
Taking cues from Jon Raymond’s screenplay, Reichardt creates a steady immersion into the sights and sounds of her characters’ lives, devoting several minutes to their daily travel routine before a single line of dialogue is spoken. (Fans of the classic “Oregon Trail” videogame will feel instantly at home.) The context of their wandering only becomes clear once one of the men etches a single word onto a dead tree trunk lying in the sun: “Lost.” Through a series of whispered conversations, we learn that Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) has been hired to guide them across the Cascade Mountains, and hasn’t exactly delivered on his promise. Struggling to survive under harsh conditions, the majority of the group has grown suspicious of Meek’s reliability and motives. Based on a real incident, their plight builds under increasingly frantic pressure, as the bland scenery amounting to a dreamlike vista that transcends reality and invokes mythological dimensions.
While the period piece framework takes the movie beyond the modern existential sketches of “Wendy and Lucy” and “Old Joy,” Reichardt displays the same capacity for meshing her characters with their environment. The cast includes a handful of fairly big league talent buried under wrinkled scarves and cowboy hats. Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson and Will Patton mostly lurk in the corners of the frame, but Michelle Williams stands out as the aggressive proto-feminist Emily Tetherow, whose skepticism for Meek eventually leads her to take control of the situation.
Conceptually, “Meek’s Cutoff” contains such a skeleton cast and vacuous backdrop that at times it has more in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” than any given western precedent. Still, Reichardt has never displayed an interest in rudimentary suspense tactics, and “Meek’s Cutoff” rarely indulges in them. (When it does, in scenes where the loose cannons of the bunch repeatedly freak out, we get glimmers of a lesser film.) Instead, her spell derives much its power from the stark open air milieu. The barren landscape, captured by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt in expressive orange and brown hues, recalls the setting of Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” (which, incidentally, used the same location scout) insofar as both movies put considerable effort into pitting humanity against the cold, unsympathetic threats of nature. Jeff Grace’s eerily subdued score (reminiscent of Jonny Greenwood’s work on “There Will Be Blood”) suggests the suffocating mystery of the geography to the nomads trapped within it.
With no definable beginning or end, “Meek’s Cutoff” simply flows along, stabilized by historical gravitas and the keen upending of the genre in question. Ultimately, Reichardt moves beyond merely observing their misdirection to create a parable about racism. When the men in the group capture a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) and decide to use him to replace Meek as their guide, the suspicious hired hand unloads a series of epithets against their prisoner, contributing to the onslaught of paranoia. Will the stone-faced man lead them to water or an ambush? Reichardt leaves it ambiguous, instead focusing on Emily’s growing desire to understand the captured Other. While Meek is the story’s villain, the Native American serves as an entirely alien presence, his probable innocence challenging the ideological norms of the period — and the predetermined authority of Meek himself. A pivotal scene finds the Indian chanting over an ailing traveler, as Reichardt cuts away to the white onlookers, their expressions stuck somewhere between awe and disbelief.
In the wrong hands, “Meek’s Cutoff” might seem to plod along without a tangible purpose, but Reichardt gives it several: Meek, bearded and constantly wearing a scowl, has the sort of gruff presence symbolic of the Old West in American cultural memory (and, with his ongoing insistence that civilization lies just beyond the next hill, a handy metaphor for the machinations of Dick Cheney). But the movie rejects the immovability of that conceit, particularly with a tense, atypical stand-off in which Williams’s character holds the biggest gun. By the final shot, Reichardt has delivered an enticing reprimand to the fantasy of the home on the range. “We’re not lost,” Meek insists when facing opposition to his leadership. “We’re just finding our way.” Pitting his confidence against the wide-open desert plains, “Meek’s Cutoff” eventually succeeds as a roadtrip to nowhere.