The river-crossing scene at the beginning of Meek's Cutoff is not the triumphant I'm-coming-after-you-guys equestrian swim that the plucky young heroine of True Grit pulls off in the Coen Brothers' recent old-west saga.
Instead, in Kelly Reichardt's beautifully observed, determinedly poky western, a small train of covered wagons pulled by oxen enters a rushing river, plods through the churning wash and emerges, the travelers wetter and wearier, on the other side. This convoy of homesteaders is making its way along the Oregon Trail. The year is 1845. The women wear bonnets that hide their faces. The men are taciturn. They talk, when they must, among themselves.
Reichardt, whose similarly low-budget, low-key but contemporary films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, I can count among my favorites of the last decade, is admirably steadfast - and spare - in her approach. A wind-beaten tree limb lies across the dusty, sun-beaten landscape, the word LOST etched into its skin. The grind of the wagons' axles on hard rock reverberates on the soundtrack. And Stephen Meek (a bearded, fly-bit Bruce Greenwood), the guide hired on by the three families to take them through the Cascade Mountains, steers his horse this way and that, scouting for Indians and trying to figure out where he took a wrong turn.
Things happen in Meek's Cutoff - mostly bad things - but they happen at an nonmomentous pace. This is not a Hollywood western by any stretch - old Hollywood or new. And so we're left to mingle with the westward bound: Solomon and Emily Tetherow, a stoic husband and wife played by Will Patton and Michelle Williams (last seen together when she brought her busted car into his auto shop in Wendy and Lucy); Glory and William White (Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff) and their young son, Jimmy (Tommy Nelson), prayerful and proud; and the young marrieds Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano, from There Will Be Blood, and Zoe Kazan, from The Exploding Girl).
As the days drag on and the water runs out, the tensions magnify. Trust in the Lord, and in one another, begins to wane.
I wanted to like Meek's Cutoff more than I did. Reichardt and her writer, Jonathan Raymond (he also scripted Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy), bring a quiet, watchful sensibility to their work, allowing the actors room to reflect and riff. But the stilted language and rectitude of the times don't always mesh with the acting. (Henderson, who is British - she's a stock player in Mike Leigh's company - seems more at ease with the stodgy rhythms of speech than her cast mates.) The cinematography, by Chris Blauvelt, captures the rugged landscapes and rainless skies with a homespun elegance. And the ending leaves everything open for interpretation and examination, and that's a good thing. But because the Tetherows, the Whites, and the Gatelys, and Meek, too, are guarded by the manners and mores of their time - or so Reichardt and Raymond make them - it's tough to feel emotionally invested in their plight.
"What do you see out there?" Williams' Emily asks her spouse, looking off into the horizon.
"It's hard to say," he responds. That about says it all.