You're celebrating Pioneer Day. You want to watch a movie that gets you in that 19th-century spirit. What should you see? ---
Sure, there have been feature films specifically focused on the Mormon-pioneer experience, dutifully faith-promoting efforts like 2002's Handcart and last year's 17 Miracles. But once you get past the canned uplift, there's not a lot of there there.
So, if you're prepared to think outside your pioneer box, consider last year's other tale of a troubled pioneer trek, Kelly Reichardt's drama Meek's Cutoff. Screenwriter Jon Raymond draws from a real-life historical tale: an Oregon-bound wagon train led by guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) in 1845 that took an alternate route to the well-traveled Oregon Trail. Dissent soon begins to simmer, however, as the pioneers—including Soloman (Will Patton) and Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams)—suspect that Meek doesn’t really know where he’s going. With water supplies running low as they reach the Great Salt Lake, the travelers face a series of fateful decisions.
Reichardt sets a brilliant tone early on by keeping the pioneers at a distance, observing the deliberate intensity of a river crossing or the broad stretches of barren land they’re crossing. The dialogue is kept to a laconic minimum—fairly characteristic of Reichardt’s work (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) even when she’s not doing a period piece—and when people are speaking, sometimes we’re kept at almost the same distance as the women who are never part of the decision-making, grabbing only a stray phrase or two. Grim, dirty faces become the narrative.
What emerges is drama born out of every moment and every choice, when a spilled bucket or the delay caused by a broken wagon axle could mean the difference between life and death. And when days of desert wandering leads the group to capture a Cayuse Indian (stuntman Rod Rondeaux) to help guide them to much-needed water, it becomes an even more compelling tale of what it really means for a decision to have consequences. Be prepared for an ambiguous ending that makes it clear that Meek’s Cutoff is a journey that’s actually all about the journey.