There are two ways audiences can process that. One is that it becomes boring, as seemingly not much happens for long stretches of time. The other is to become immersed in the experience of the travelers, emphasizing their frustrations, their fears, their failures. Some will doubtless have the former reaction to "Meek's Cutoff," but I had the latter. Greatly enhanced by the performances of Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood, director Kelly Reichardt's film quietly becomes engrossing - it almost sneaks up on you.
Stephen Meek (Greenwood) is leading three families west along the Oregon Trail, all of their possessions bundled into wagons that slowly make their way. At least Meek is supposed to be leading them. Despite his best efforts at convincing the group otherwise, it becomes clear that they are lost. The rugged, sometimes brutal terrain is not a good place to lose your way. In addition to the dangers the surroundings provide, there is also the threat of Indian attack and, most dangerous, a lack of water.
The men among the group have had enough of Meek's meandering direction; at one point they debate whether they should kill him. They don't, though, because what would they do without him?
Meek knows he's on thin ice, particularly with Emily Tetherow (Williams), one of the wives. More direct than the other wives - indeed, more direct than the husbands - she doesn't bother to hide her disdain for Meek. She is interested in results: a clear path, safety, water. Much like the film, Williams' performance is patient, revealing itself slowly. Reichardt pays much attention to the women on the trip (Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson play the other two). But Emily eventually emerges as the strongest character, man or woman, of the bunch.
Along the way the group captures a Native American (Ron Rondeaux). Fearful, ignorant, the men beat him, mostly because they think they are supposed to - they don't know what else to do with him. It is Emily who realizes that, instead of posing a danger to the group, he is the best hope for its salvation. The protests of Meek, still talking a good game, do not dissuade her.