"We're close, but we don't know what to."
These lines, spoken in an apprehensive hush near the close of Kelly Reichardt's pioneer drama Meek's Cutoff, are a key to what makes her film—which is methodical, arid, uneventful and without resolution—so improbably thrilling. It is not, as many of us were vocally hoping, the Oregon Trail video game turned into a movie. Instead, it saturates an audience with the sensations of what it was like actually to be on the Oregon Trail: the complete disorientation, the exhausting routines as a means of warding off fear, the paranoia of being surrounded by so much silence but being unable to quite hear the most important conversations. It is a vision of the West different from and more intimate than any I have seen before, and it sets a high-water mark for the Oregon film renaissance.
But it is also a movie about no water at all. Reichardt and her trusty screenwriter, Jonathan Raymond, have based their story on a luckless wagon train that attempted a shortcut across what is now Harney County; the filmmakers have shot in the high desert outside Burns, where the cracked earth is so egg-white it looks like a beach—crucially minus the ocean. (Shot in a tight 1.37:1 that increases the feeling of isolation, Meek's Cutoff is evidence that Eastern Oregon contains an enormous selection of the color brown.) By the time the movie opens, they are already lost: The first scenes show the party fording a river and collecting creek water, and only later do we (and they) realize how precious those barrels will become. Their hired guide, a blithering braggart named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, in rattily ornate facial hair somewhere between that of Yosemite Sam and a biblical patriarch), deflects attention from his navigational ineptness with claws-and-brimstone storytelling: "Hell is full of bears, Jimmy," he tells a rapt child. "But there are no bears here.â There is nothing here.
Well, almost nothing: This being Oregon, even in the most desolate wasteland you can find a hipster. The Meek's Cutoff cast includes indie darlings Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, and it is tempting to draw parallels between these parched emigrants and a more recent generation of young people who have found the state less of a paradise than promised. The pioneers' pastel bonnets and cross-stitch samplers may seem familiar, and Kazan has even brought a canary in a cage—she has come to the Oregon high desert and put a bird on it. But this synchronicity goes deeper: Every movie Reichardt has made here has been about people who are forced, under duress, to jettison things they care about. In Old Joy, two friends tried to find Bagby Hot Springs, and began to abandon their connection; in Wendy and Lucy, Williams broke down in Portland and could only continue to Alaska by parting with her beloved dog; Meek's Cutoff's most breathtaking image is Williams tossing heirlooms out the back of a prairie schooner, to reduce weight and keep moving. Reichardt and Raymond's West is a place of lostness and loss.
It is also a place to find yourself. Meek's Cutoff has already been dubbed a feminist western and a minimalist western—these tags may be true, but the movie is foremost a blank-slate western. It does not feel like a historical drama; it has no interest in history's verdict. The film hinges on Williams' decision to trust a captured Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) over Meek—but it is the choice itself Reichardt chronicles, not its results. The character's courage is stirring, but the movie's ultimate open-endedness is electrifying. Ninety-nine percent of movies pretend that life is most accurately viewed in hindsight, when in fact its most vivid experiences always take place without knowing the resolution. Gus Van Sant was a trailblazer for American cinema as a record of sensation, but Reichardt is advancing into a storytelling that is perfectly immediate—linear, sure, but requiring no moral tied on like a bow. Meek's Cutoff is filled with the dizzying freshness of freedom, and it portends that Reichardt is leading Oregon filmmaking to places it has never been before. It doesn't matter what to. We're close.