Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt and starring Michelle Williams, is an interesting film. Interesting can cover a myriad of topics, I know, but it’s the adjective that keeps coming back to me over and over again as I try to describe my reaction to this movie.

Imagine you’re playing The Oregon Trail and everything goes horribly, horribly wrong. That would be this movie. A group of settlers have put their trust in the wrong man – Stephen Meek, based on a real historical figure  – and they aren’t quite sure what to do about it. He’s promised them a shortcut, but he’s lost.

Williams is rather wonderful in the film. She’s almost unrecognizable as the brunette Emily Tetherow. She’s a woman with “true grit“, and the added bonus of being blessed with a husband, Solomon, who treats her as more of an equal than any of the other men treat their respective wives. Solomon actually tells Emily what’s going on, even if he doesn’t allow her an actual vote.

The Tetherows are definitely the brains of this particular operation, but they discover that themselves a bit too late in the game.  It’s hard to blame them when they’re hindered by a few who are considerably slower on the up take and others who are just flat-out dumb.

The women don't get a say.

The scenery and harsh natural lighting serve to underscore the serious predicament the settlers find themselves in. I dare you to watch this film and not feel thirsty. Reichardt has a terrific eye and there are some fantastic shots in the film that stay with you long after the end credits roll. I can still see Williams’ reflection at the bottom of an almost empty water barrel.

If I fault that movie at all, it is for the lack of forward progress in the plot. When the film starts, our would-be pioneers are lost. When the film ends, they are still very much lost. But I’m more than fine with the ambiguous ending we’re left with. I think you will be, too.

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