In Oregon, the year 1846, the first of the settlers were making their arduous way across the plains in the hope of a better life somewhere in the distance, away from this harsh landscape. One such group were these three couples, one of whom have a son and another child on the way, and as they stocked up on water for their journey at this fast-flowing river, the man they had hired to lead them to safety surveyed the scene. He was Meek (Bruce Greenwood), and he claimed to have experience of the territory, but once they set out, Emily (Michelle Williams) had her doubts...
So began what for many viewers was one of the most boring films they had ever seen, a Western where you had to do a mammoth amount of reading between the lines to fathom exactly what the point of it all could be. It was the third film from the director-writer team of Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymond after two critically acclaimed and cultishly admired indie works: the previous one, Wendy and Lucy (also starring Williams), had been especially well liked. Meek's Cutoff was something different, a feminist Western (or at least you could view it in that manner) where the bulk of the action was walking.
Or rolling across those plains in the covered wagons, but the fact remained a lot of this was taken up with the cast moving from one side of the screen to the other, occasionally breaking off from that to ponder their predicament, which the supposedly helpful Meek was turning out to be of no help to at all. You could see a political aspect to the story, as the one man who claims to know precisely what to do to get them (or us) out of these apparently dire circumstances is no more an expert than any of the other characters, and is in fact a blustering blowhard who doesn't know his arse from his elbow, no matter how many self-aggrandising yarns he spins.
The one person to twig early on that Meek is not what he seems, or not what her companions hoped for anyway, is Emily, and she at least admits that she knows for sure that they are lost. As the countryside stretches out ahead of them and their guide is no closer to taking them out of it than he was when they were at the river at the beginning of the movie, it is she who starts to call him on his bold assertions, though the other travellers have conflicting opinions on how much assistance Meek is actually offering. Then there's the introduction of a fresh character who she has noticed following them for the past few miles.
He is an Indian (Ron Rondeaux), and presently captured by the men of the wagon train. Meek says this new arrival is nothing short of a menace and should be executed forthwith, but Emily, quickly becoming the polar opposite of him in outlook, opts to look after the nameless man, feeding him, bringing him water from their dwindling stocks, and even mending his boot when the stitching comes apart. There are many instances of letting us in the audience know just how laborious life was for the settlers back in the mid-1800s from minor incidents to major, such as the time it took to fire a rifle or allow a wagon to be lowered down a steep hill (you can guess how that turns out when luck is not much in evidence). The trouble being that for too many viewers Meek's Cutoff was also laborious to watch, but if you had about as much patience as the characters did that they would find the short cut of the title then odds were you could find this rewarding, even with that open ending. Music by Jeff Grace.