“Is he ignorant? Or is he just plain evil? That’s my quandary.” Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) is making her way across the American West — the Oregon Trail in 1845 — part of a small group of emigrants hoping to find good fortune somewhere else. They’ve hired a guide, Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who likes to recall his encounters with bears and savages, entertaining himself more than his listeners. Emily, for one, is worried he doesn’t know where he’s taking them.
She shares her concerns with her husband Solomon (Will Patton), one late night in their tent. Their faces more shadowed than illuminated by a lamp, they ponder the possibilities, realizing they can’t know for certain, that even if Meek is a liar and a crook, they’re lost out here in a wide dry expanse, unable to find their way. That’s not to say they’re not hardy or courageous. But they are lost — a point underlined in the early minutes of Meek’s Cutoff, when one of the emigrants pauses during their arduous trek to scratch on a rock the word “LOST.”
At once mundane and profound, the word describes any number of conditions. The film thus far has showed no faces and identified no characters. The men keep their head down, their hats obscuring their expressions as they work to steady their wagons, tipping precariously on the bank of a river they’ve just crossed. The women are likewise hard to see, their bonnets defending against the sun and your gaze: as they hang their aprons to dry, following their walks across that river, they keep focused on the arid terrain in front of them, unspeaking and stern-seeming.
What’s behind them remains unknown. Kelly Reichardt’s movie begins as the group is crossing a river. The men wait on the other side with their wagons already safe on shore, as the woman follow, slowly stepping. Emily wears a pale pink bonnet, pitched down as she wades in the waist-high water, Millie (Zoe Kazan) balances a birdcage on her blue bonnet, and Glory (Shirley Henderson) holds the hand of her son, Jimmy (Tommy Nelson).
As they reach land, they keep on: each step in their journey leads to another, the camera low and still as they pass by. When Meek appears, on his horse, he brings no good news, really, no news at all. Based loosely on the real life story of Stephen Meek, who led a wagon train in the Oregon High Desert, leading to at least 23 deaths — by starvation, fever, and dehydration — the film follows the group’s gradual recognition of just how lost they are.
Suspecting that Meek’s been hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company or even by Indians to lose them, the would-be settlers contemplate their own sorts of violence. As Meek regales young Jimmy with stories of bears and scalps, the men glower and take a moment to confer. “What are they talking about?” wonders Glory, as the women are also cast together, watching from a distance. Emily squints at the men and sums up, “Whether to hang Stephen Meek.”
Violence — potential and inevitable — shapes each moment in this extraordinary film. Rarely visible and never cathartic, this violence is instead like the land that offers possibility and lays down limits for the emigrants, the future they can’t know and the past they’ve left behind: they’ve brought at least part of it with them, a rocking chair, a clock that belonged to Emily’s mother. As the journey wears on, these objects become “weight,” and so she tosses them out the back of the wagon, bouncing, breaking, and then receding in the dust. Harsh and hopeful, the land reflects the travelers’ own minds, their dreams and their fears. Meek — rough-hewn, long-haired and self-performing, arrogant and careless — embodies the same problem, what’s unknowable and what they’ve come to anticipate.
That problem comes to something like a head when the emigrants come across an Indian
(Rod Rondeaux). At first, he’s following them, but when he frightens Emily one afternoon, looming before her as she’s gathering firewood. Recalling the moment later when questioned by the men, she describes a scar on his shoulder. Meek surmises, “Might be Paiute.” Then again, no one can know.
Even when Meek and Solomon capture the Indian and bring him back, no one is sure what to do with him. With no shared language, even single words, he and the white people can only observe each other, and guess at what someone might mean. But the Indian changes the dynamic of the group, as Emily, inclined to distrust Meek, tends to see her husband’s logic, that the Indian might lead them to water, as Meek has been unable to do. Emily’s interest in the Indian turns more complex as she tries to engage him. While the men keep him tied up at night and follow him with their guns ready during their daytime treks, she rejects Meek’s advice (“He’s a killer, ma’am, don’t get so close”), she offers the Indian food and sews his moccasin because, she explains to Millie, “I want him to owe me something.”
Millie takes her own lesson from what she sees. She tells her husband Thomas (Paul Dano) that their new heathen guide is leading to a terrible end, her hysteria increasing as the Indian scratches signs on rocks (as the emigrants have also done). While Emily and Meek express their mutual mistrust, the Indian seems the occasion for their divide. But he also has nothing to do with them, and they are, of course, intruders, though they can’t see it. It’s his inability to see, to know, and to guess very well, that leads to violence and also makes it useless. Each day brings a new obstacle, a new catastrophe, but the film doesn’t gather momentum or provide a showdown or even a resolution. Instead, it leaves open questions, for the emigrants and for you.