Dir. Kelly Reichardt
In one interpretation, possibly limited to his own, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is an accomplished outdoorsman, able to discern the good and bad in people in an instant and adapt to new, potentially lethal circumstances at the drop of his ten-gallon hat. In another, he's the kind of swaggering confidence man that you imagine has plagued innocent groups of migrants since the dawn of time: Everything he does is with an arrogant bluster and a sense of purpose, but it's only after he's been given his money and leads his marks into the middle of nowhere that it becomes clear he hasn't got any more of an idea where he is than they do. And yet, even then, he refuses to back down from his claims, and absolutely won't acknowledge what he doesn't pretend to know.
It's this last point that so irks Emily Tetherbow (Michelle Williams) whose husband, Solomon (Will Patton), along with two other small families, have staked their future upon Meek's understanding of the rough landscape of the 19th century Oregon desert. Meek, with his Yosemite Sam beard and Tom Waits rasp, plays the role of the grizzled, sage frontiersman to the hilt, telling the young son of one of the other families stories of bear huntin' and surviving adversities, all while leading the small wagon caravan deeper and deeper into arid, desert-like land patrolled by groups of Native American tribes, all while growing shorter and shorter on water. When Meeks and Solomon capture one of those Indians, Emily's husband is the one who keeps Meeks from killing him on the spot with the idea that he will be able to lead them to water. It is further over Meeks objections that Emily herself takes to the prisoner, feeding him and mending his boots. When push comes to shove, the group, devoutly religious, hopeful and doomed, rests their hopes not on Meeks' supposed skill and understanding but on the Indian, whose intentions are at best veiled.
This is the absorbing morality conundrum in director Kelly Reichardt's latest ambiguous downer of a picture. In short order, she dispels any lingering sense of romanticism as to the wagoners plight: We feel the grit under their feet, the burn on their skin, the gnawing sense of helplessness as their best plans seem to go awry. Working tightly with DP Chris Blauvelt, Reichardt creates a tableau of unrestrained beauty along with the dismal routine of relentless chores and unspeakable dread cresting just past the deep shadows of the darkness around their campfires. The pace of the film is glacial, not unlike the progress of its protagonists, with several long minutes devoted to the clan crossing a river, fixing up their lean-tos or replacing a broken wagon, but the nondescript nature of the tasks themselves leads to a greater sense of anxiety about them. You can't come away from this disturbing quasi-parable without seeing, in the starkest possible terms, just how fragile human beings are in the grandly uncertain scheme of the natural world.
This BD version also includes a making of mini-doc, the trailer and an essay from Richard Hell.