Meek's Cutoff is based on a real story. I don't really need to know that and I kind of wish I didn't. It's not because the film isn't factual, it's just the kind of story that has no reliance on a real-world truth. The truth being that an actual Stephen Meek led a bunch of people on a wagon train across the Oregon desert in 1845. How it turned out? I'll leave that fact out and I highly encourage you to not look up any information.
So what does the film show us? The heavily bearded Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) has offered to help three families through Oregon- the Tetherow's (wife-husband played by Michelle Williams and Will Patton), the White's (wife-husband-young son played by Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, and Tommy Nelson), and the Gately's (wife-husband played by real-life couple Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano). A Native American (Ron Rondeaux) figures into this all as well, but you'll have to see the movie to know what I mean. The main point of all this? Well, they are completely lost and are running out of water.
The film is directed by the masterful Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy) and written by Jon Raymond (also Wendy and Lucy). What kind of film is this? It's full of slow and long shots. They show the daily struggle of these people just being able to put one foot in front of the other. As expected of just about any film set in the wild west, the cinematography is beautiful. You get this sense of realism being placed against the dream of the vast frontier.
The script, coupled with the acting/directing, just creates this feeling of restlessness, uncertainty, and dreariness. Williams as Emily, re-teaming with Reichardt, has this sense of concentration about her that just builds throughout until it places her on a collision course with Greenwood's Meek. The film is so effective with how it builds character through action and dialogue. Hell, from one look at the costume Meek is wearing, you know a lot already. Greenwood's portrayal of the guy is just as mysterious as he looks (it should be noted that I view him as a supporting role, despite the character's name in the title).
The film was so unique. The rhythm and pace through editing is just so different from what I expected. The interplay between the night and day scenes is a great contrast (so much natural light feels as if it was used, obviously). I love how this film is in part about isolation and what that does to a personality. I mean, this film has so much to say to me. The obvious example would be that it definitely makes a statement about gender differnece of the time, but it certainly goes deeper than that. It was one of those movies where I know I liked it because of the affect it had on me. What that affect was? I can't put that into words right now. I just know that come that final scene, I'm so afraid for these characters and I'm just unsettled by where Reichardt chooses to leave the audience.
Most importantly, the movie was a vivid experience. Something I know that I would enjoy so I hesitate to recommend it to anyone in particular. This was genuine filmmaking with a voice and a vision. It captured complexity beyond my understanding, but to me, that is the art of it all- I can still see that complexity without fully being able to put my finger on it.