Oregon, 1845: Three families traveling by covered wagon toward what they hope will be a new beginning have hired an intrepid guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), to guide them to their destination, but now they're lost, and they all know it—all, it seems, except Meek. It's hard to tell if he's dumb, arrogant, or evil.
As they roam the dry, cracked, barren country, they begin to despair of finding water: dying of thirst suddenly looks like a distinct possibility, but the only thing to do is to keep walking, letting Meek lead them, wondering if he's leading them toward their ends. Tensions run high. But they encounter a Native American—from a tribe that Meek has assured them is brutal and savage—and though they can't communicate with him very well, they decide it's better, somehow, to follow him rather than Meek. But their trust is soaked in skepticism and fear, and those misgivings are bolstered by Meek's outright scorn. Their new guide has the tentative faith only of Solomon and Emily Tetherow (Will Patton and Michelle Williams)—and Emily may have to put her own safety on the line to keep him safe.
Movies and books about the pioneers tend to romanticize just a tad: Little House on the Prairie looms large in the imagination of many an American schoolgirl, who begs for a bonnet and a tin cup for Christmas. Or they swing wide in the other direction, giving the viewer a wild West full of gun-slingers, shady characters, and women of ill repute.
Meek's Cutoff, by contrast, made as it is in the new American neorealist tradition that director Kelly Reichardt helps anchor (her previous two films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, are exemplars of the genre), is gritty, dusty, and a little agonizing. It reminds us ...1