The true story of Stephen Meek and the 1,000 settlers who followed him on an untried route through the high desert of Eastern Oregon in 1845 is fascinating and compelling. It is a story of the faith, fortitude and foolishness of the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who ventured into the wilderness, pushed by their search for a sensible god and a place to live free or die.
Most of our time is spent watching as Ms. Reichardt films, in what feels like real time, three wagons and the families whose livelihoods depend on a successful journey, as the oxen pull the wagons, the men walk beside the oxen and the women walk behind, across endless miles of desert landscape in a search for water.
There are nice gestures in the direction of the social hierarchy of the time. When important decisions are made the men tell the women to stand by the wagons while they go off a distance to discuss. The camera stays focused on the women and their patience, trying to overhear the logic that will determine their fate. Stoicism abides deeply in both genders, with only Millie Gately, played by Zoe Kazan, breaking down in fear of what she sees as an imminent attack by savage Indians. Everyone, even her husband, seems bewildered by her excess of emotion.
There is a moment of clarity when one of the women says, “We’re lost aren’t we?” Meek, the guide, played by Bruce Greenwood with a long graying beard and hair, says, “We ain’t lost, we’re just finding our way.”
The film, too, seems to be finding it’s way to a story, to a solid understanding of character, and of the situation in which the pioneers find themselves. One choice that Reichardt and the screenwriter, Jonathan Raymond, have made that almost leads the film to the life it so desperately needs is the addition of a Cayuse Indian who seems at first to be following the wagon train until the settlers capture him and attempt to communicate using a combination of threats and kindness, and finally bribe him to lead them to water. For strictly his own reasons he continues his own journey, and the settlers, choosing to believe that he is following their wishes, follow him even deeper into the wilderness. The final moment tells the whole story, when Meek, looking more and more like an Old Testament prophet, surrenders his authority as their leader, and the five out-of-place adult pilgrims and one child have nowhere to turn. The Indian rises and walks on, continuing his journey as the camera fades to black and the credits roll. Do they follow the natural man, or continue stumbling about looking for meaning?
Meek’s Cutoff opens and will play for one week only at the Downer Theater, beginning this evening, Friday 24 June.