The thirsty settlers in Meek's Cutoff take a long walk to nowhere, and so will any viewer with the constitution to stay awake through director Kelly Reichardt's plodding, punishingly deliberate meditation on decisions and the weight of their consequences. Sure, some may argue that Reichardt has something to say about group dynamics, the role of women in a male-dominated society, or the xenophobia that nearly resulted in the extermination of an entire race courtesy of Manifest Destiny, but the least she could do as a filmmaker would be to come up with an engaging way to say it. In her relentless quest to make a "film" rather than telling a "story," however, Reichardt becomes so absorbed in her own agenda that she completely neglects her audience. Separately -- and in the hands of experienced filmmakers -- measured storytelling and ambiguous endings can be incredibly powerful tools. But combining the two can be a risky endeavor, and that's precisely where Reichardt makes her fatal misstep.
Three families intent on starting new lives in the American West follow boastful wilderness guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) along the Oregon Trail, only to become hopelessly lost as their water supply starts to dwindle, and the threat of an Indian ambush looms over every hill. Later, as the men of the group (Will Patton, Paul Dano, and Neal Huff) debate the best way to get back to civilization, strong-willed Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) begins to challenge Meek, and the group manages to capture a lone Native American, who may or may not be leading his tribe directly to them. Though Meek wants to kill the native posthaste, Emily and the others reject his proposal in hopes that their captive will lead them to water. The further the group wanders, however, the less likely it seems they will ever make it out of their predicament alive.
With each step forward that these weary settlers take, the more obvious it becomes that Meek's Cutoff isn't about the surface-level story at all, but the more abstract elements that serve to drive that story from within. This approach could work if Jonathan Raymond's screenplay featured characters who actually earned our sympathies enough to make us care if they live or die; unfortunately for the audience, Raymond couldn't be bothered to inject the majority of his characters with anything resembling a personality. They're all just reacting, and when 90 percent of the conversations essentially boil down to "Should we go North or South?" the lack of any discernible passion ultimately becomes disengaging. And don't be misled by the poster -- an arresting image implying that some sort of action occurs in the context of the film -- the only bullets fired in "Meek's Cutoff" are warning shots into the clouds.
The worst part about it all is that it's obvious Reichardt is an incredibly gifted filmmaker. There isn't a line of dialogue spoken in the opening five minutes of Meek's Cutoff, yet thanks to a masterful series of images and one simple word carved into a dried-up tree, we already know the plot before anyone has so much as opened their mouth. Likewise, Chris Blauvelt's breathtaking cinematography blends with Jeff Grace's minimalist score like coffee and cream -- and the actors are all in top form. Unrecognizable in an unkempt beard and matted hair, Greenwood is exceptional as the leader who may or may not be full of hot air, and Williams can say so much with a single glance that more dialogue might have actually impeded her character's motivation by overstating it. Dano, Patton, and Shirley Henderson are completely convincing, albeit entirely underutilized, in roles that could have been played by virtually anyone.
The word "pretentious" gets thrown around quite a bit when discussing arthouse films, and for most of its running time, Meek's Cutoff feels like anything but; its unaffected performances, vivid period detail, and refreshing avoidance of revisionism earnestly transport the viewer to a different time, allowing us the unique opportunity to settle into the rhythms and patterns of a life we will never know. It's only in that last, defining moment, when the screen fades to black and the director's credit appears onscreen, that Reichardt's true intentions are revealed, and her pretension becomes palpable. It's a moment that reeks of utter contempt for the audience, proving that even such a talented filmmaker can still fall prey to her own overinflated sense of self-importance. By letting her ego take priority in Meek's Cutoff, Reichardt essentially forces the audience to ponder the "genius" of the filmmaker rather than the poignancy of her message. If you really want to watch a group of people argue endlessly over which direction to walk, there's a great little indie movie called The Blair Witch Project. It may not be as well-acted as Meek's Cutoff nor as technically polished, but at least it was made by people who genuinely endeavored to entertain their audience, rather than making them suffer for the sake of their own hubris.