In the tough and sparely beautiful neo-Western Meek’s Cutoff, the uncompromisingly independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt uses landscape and natural sound to convey American restlessness and uncertainty even more pointedly than she did in her two previous great films, Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy. With a patch of American history as her starting point there really was a Stephen Meek, a touted mountain scout who, in 1845, led a wagon train of settlers to nowhere in the high desert of eastern Oregon Reichardt and her writer, Jon Raymond, focus on the settlers’ daily, dreary challenge of putting one foot in front of the other on unfamiliar ground.
Temperamentally in sync with her Wendy and Lucy director, Michelle Williams plays one of the toiling wives (Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan play the others, all in sunbonnets that block their view of the horizon). And the actress, with her calm center, compresses the entire history of frontier wifeliness into the concentration with which she gathers firewood and loads a musket. As for Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the unreliable leader in whom the settlers first put their trust, well: As a search for water becomes desperate, group murmuring turns to whether Meek is a know-nothing, a liar, a madman, or someone even more dangerous. Under Oregon skies, there’s political subtext for the taking in this terrific, unsettling film. A