Meek’s Cutoff is an unfortunate misfire by the excellent director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy). The masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock has already been made. We didn’t need an indifferent covered wagon version.
The route of the Oregon Trail was not yet well established in 1845, so a covered wagon train hires a mountain man who claims that he has found a shortcut through the Cascades. However, it becomes clear that the mountain man (Bruce Greenwood) is unreliable, and there is a new option of following an Indian of unknown motives. We can’t even tell if the Indian is sane. The men (Will Patton, Paul Dano) must figure out what to do while their wives (Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson) eavesdrop and guess their fate.
There are possibilities there, but Reichardt hasn’t made much of a point by the time the movie ends. We know that human decision making cannot guarantee survival in a harsh and unfamiliar environment, but that’s not enough of a payoff after tromping around bleak Eastern Oregon for two hours.
Oddly, Reichardt shot the movie in a 1.37:1 Academy screen ratio. This looks especially boxy in a Western set in a vast, horizonless wilderness.