For every Jim Bridger or Kit Carson, there must have been a dozen fools like the hoarse-voiced, lying guide Stephen Meek. Director Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, based on a true story, shows us a group helpless in the hands of a moody and not quite sane mountain man.
In the 1840s, Meek (Bruce Greenwood) leads a small group of pioneers on a hazardous shortcut off the Oregon Trail, through terrain too far away from the Columbia River. The chance of Piute attack increases, and, as Meek says, "Even Indians despise these Indians."
Befitting the film's smaller scale, there's only one Indian (Rod Rondeaux), an injured brave taken hostage by the whites. He's as foreign as can be, either unable or unwilling to communicate. And Meek, a foaming racist, knows no sign language.
For reasons of budget or focus, the group in the film consists of just three wagons. On them are three women, and one of them, Michelle Williams as Emily Tetherow, is perhaps the canniest. She volunteers to mend the Indian's torn moccasin, but not out of Christian kindness; stabbing it with a needle and thread, she mutters, "I want him to owe me something."
The film's focus on the pioneer women is more than overdue. (At Sundance, Reichardt said she wanted to make a Western seen through the eyes of the person who made soup for John Wayne.) And having made a movie full of excitement and integrity, Reichardt decides to leave the ending open. Questioned about it at Sundance, Reichardt justified her own cutoff: "We all know how it ends," she said; namely, the West gets settled.
That kind of logic could be a game for Twitter. I'll start: Why watch the last reel of Casablanca if you know the Germans eventually lose the war?
'Meek's Cutoff' opens Friday, May 13, at Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa.