Dir. Kelly Reichardt
(2011, PG, 103 min)

Meek’s Cutoff is a very good film without an ending. After about a hundred minutes, the screenplay by Jonathan Raymond – who collaborated on both of director Kelly Reichardt‘s previous films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy – just seems to stop in its tracks. Because so much of the film is about the general plight of settlers in the 19th century northwest, perhaps we can consider the open ending a comment on the unsettled (no pun intended) lives of early Americans on the Oregon Trail, but because the story’s conflicts are so specific I felt disappointed despite the quality of what had come before. When the end credits roll it’s like a period at the end of a sentence fragment.

But it’s hard for me to hold a premature fade-out against the entire film. True to Reichardt’s style it’s quietly perceptive, tense underneath its placid surface, speaks softly but is impactful. I like this film better than Old Joy, which I found lacking in dramatic tension, but not quite as much as Wendy and Lucy, which had an ending – and a touching one at that. Like Wendy and Lucy, this film stars Michelle Williams, who plays Emily Tetherow, a wife and stepmother who is part of a three-family party traveling through the Oregon desert in 1845. The families have enlisted Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to guide them, but five weeks into a two-week journey it’s clear he’s lost. He won’t admit to it, and they don’t trust him anymore.

Along the way, they encounter a lone Native American man (Rod Rondeaux) identified by the credits only as “the Indian.” Is he a member of a raiding party? A bandit? Is he peaceful or dangerous? Meek insists he’s a threat and should be killed immediately, but Meek also said he knew where he was going, so they take his warning with a grain of salt. Maybe the Indian can lead them to water, the families hope. Part of the film’s tension is not knowing what the Indian intends; he can’t understand the settlers, and they can’t understand him. Certainly they’re a threat to him, and he might respond in kind. Emily is the only person willing to openly question Meek, or to make overt gestures of kindness to the Indian, though her intent is to get on his good side so he’ll help them.

Along with the urgency of finding water and the simmering tension between Meek, the Indian, and the families is a subtle observation of frontier life, its moment-to-moment hardships. The very first shot of the film is of a strenuous river crossing. In another scene, Emily fires a rifle as a distress call, and Reichardt holds the shot to show the effort of reloading it. And the broken axle of a wagon wheel is a catastrophic setback when those laboring to fix it are on the verge of dehydration. In showing these events, Reichardt’s camera is mostly still, capturing vast barren landscapes and tight, intimate spaces with cinematography by Chris Blauvelt that draws us into the vivid, desperate world of the characters. Night scenes are lit not with the unnatural brightness of most films but as an enveloping darkness that candles and campfires can only barely keep at bay. Through Reichardt’s understated filming, these crises feel at once dire and commonplace, and I suppose they are. This is life for pioneer settlers. The end.