Let me begin with a bit of history: until the arrival of the locomotive, the western half of the American continent was criss-crossed by a number of emigrant trails designed to help Americans immigrate to such emerging western territories as California. Arguably the most famous of these trails was the Oregon Trail, a 2000-mile route that linked the Missouri River to valleys in what we now think of as the state of Oregon. In its heyday between 1846 and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, the Oregon Trail conducted over 400,000 Americans to the west of the continent. It was through this steady flow of farmers, miners, ranchers and normal people that the West was truly won.
Kelly Reichardt’s film Meek’s Cutoff tells the (reportedly true) story of what happened when one group of settlers – lead by the famous explorer Stephen Meek – attempted to find a safer route to Oregon that might bypass some dangerous Indian land. Slow-paced and enigmatically shot, Reichardt’s film reveals both an emptiness at the heart of the American dream and the dangers of what can happen when being a man is mistaken for being a leader.