Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond go western saga on the avid film audience in Meek’s Cutoff. As a cautionary and frank note only an avid film buff is the one who will get into the pace and psyche of Reichardt’s account of her portrayal of home on the range in the year 1845. Reichardt’s research of the historical era included reading journals and personal diaries of the women who traveled the Oregon Trail westbound and this perspective is what she captures in Meek’s Cutoff. Her versions of those western days have nothing in common with the typical Hollywood scenario of the Wild West – no big forces concerned about territory, the order of the law or migrants passing through the land. She paints an amazing picture of a slow mundane existence with beautiful landscapes, eerie music (by composer Jeff Grace) and along with very little script the sounds of nature at its best that one would find on the open range. Reichardt notes, “The diaries really get across labor and the monotony of that labor. It paints a picture of an endless landscape and trance-like feeling of one day rolling into the next. So in my film the routine of chores, the rattle of the carriages, the squeaky wheel, and the intense silence that falls at night – those things are intended to reflect a journey dominated by time and space and repetition.”
The year is 1845 and three mid-west pioneer immigrant families head west in pursuit of their dreams. Their goal is to reach the Oregon Territory where they have heard that water is in abundance. To stay on course it is advised to take a path called the Oregon Trail and a must to hire an experienced guide due to the rugged terrain and uncertainties if confronted by the Native Americans. The guide they hired was an experienced mountain man, Stephen Meeks (Bruce Greenwood). He came well recommended and the men of each family were delighted to hear of his famed short cut over the Cascade Mountains as they imagined settling near the scenic Oregon Coastline. The men of the Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton), Thomas Gately (Paul Dano) and Neal White (Neal Huff) families were comforted by Meek’s tales and anxious to arrive in their land of dreams sooner than expected. The women (Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan, and Shirley Henderson) of these families had a different take on their crude guide and looked forward the day he no longer dictated their destiny. Meek’s short cut leads the small wagon train into uncharted territory that has everyone on edge including Meeks. The survival of this small band of immigrants’ and the success of their expedition is dependent upon their trust in each other and who they choose to guide them through horrific conditions – Meeks (deemed unreliable) or a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux) thought to be an enemy.