‘Meek’s Cutoff’ is relentlessly grim

I strapped on my Serious Art face for "Meek's Cutoff," the reputed work of ascetic genius about pioneers slowly, and I mean slowly, crossing the western plains.

About 20 minutes in, though, I had a relapse, and started praying that Vin Diesel would join the wagon train in his '69 Challenger.

Or . . . and I never thought I'd say this . . . that one of the wagons would unfold and transform into Optimus Prime.

No such luck. "Meek's Cutoff" is earnest and sober to the point of suffocation, which often happens when the decision is made to shut off the air of entertainment.

You get the drift in the several-minute opening scene - wagons crossing a river. An ox pulls a wagon into the current, lugs it incrementally across, then exits the far shore. Then another wagon crosses. Then another. Then women carrying possessions over their heads ford the river, one by one.

About a minute in, you realize that director Kelly Reichardt ("Wendy and Lucy") is going to shoot the whole thing in one take. No music, no dialogue. A style she maintains throughout.

The idea, in part, is to have us share the hardships of the settlers. "Meek's" is based on the diaries of actual pioneers who crossed Oregon with a guy named Meek, who made a living by promising settlers an easy shortcut to the coastal regions.

Did he know of a shortcut? Was he a swindler? The question hangs in the air in "Meek's Cutoff," which gradually evolves into an internal (and patriarchal) debate about Meek (Bruce Greenwood), his qualifications, their prospects.

As they lose confidence in Meek, they encounter an elderly Indian (Ron Rondeaux), and decide to ask his advice in finding a source of water or a route to civilization.

This is a potentially engrossing scenario, straight out of Terrence Malick - the tension between the natural world and man's arrogant incursions and impositions.

But there is a political idea at work as well. The filmmakers have stated that Meek is meant to suggest George Bush and the idea of people lead astray by dubious leadership.

It's an idea that instantly undercuts labored efforts to recreate the 19th century, and contributes to a stilted tone.

The journey may be based on diaries, but it never seems real, and you don't have to be a pioneer to see that they make unthinkable mistakes - winching a wagon down a sheer cliff with their entire water supply strapped to the buckboard, for instance.

Performances don't help. Reichardt has her ultradowner "Wendy and Lucy" crew (Michelle Williams, Will Patton) and added Paul Dano, who's as much fun as he was in "There Will be Blood."

Williams is still in suffering mode, here as a disenfranchised female who sees the men leading the expedition astray and cautiously asserts herself.

The poster has Williams pointing a rifle, promising action that never occurs. You CAN find a good movie about a tough, gun-totin' female on a western odyssey with dithering and bombastic men.

It was called "True Grit."

But you'd have to submit to being entertained.

Meek's Cutoff

Directed by Kelly Reichardt. With Zoe Kazan, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano. Distributed by Oscilloscope Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 44 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for some mild violent content, brief language and smoking).