Had Samuel Beckett made a Western, it might have resembled Kelly Reichardt's inscrutable tale, which is based on a real incident from the great Westward Migration. Stripped bare of myth, history, and politics, Reichardt's film (written by her perennial collaborator, Jon Raymond) reduces Manifest Destiny to an existential equation, a passage from a forgotten origin to an unknown destination through an inhospitable terrain that's beautiful in its near emptiness — this is the arid equivalent of Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God. Reichardt offers the minimum of genre conventions and none of the genre's satisfactions or resolutions. The "cutoff" in the title might refer to your sense of vertigo at the abrupt, enigmatic conclusion.
In real life, Meek's Cutoff was a shortcut sought by the frontiersman Stephen Meek, who in 1845 served as a guide for a wagon train bound for Oregon. He led his party into the forbidding Oregon Desert, where it seems he lost his way. Many died of hunger and thirst before they reached their destination. Some threatened to mutiny against Meek's leadership. Like the Donner Pass, Meek's Cutoff became a synonym for a pioneering expedition gone wrong.
Reichardt's version whittles the original scenario down from 200 wagons to three. She doesn't stint, however, in her depiction of Meek: played by Bruce Greenwood, the crusty varmint could hold his own against the feral trapper wearing a bear head who appears majestically in the Coen Brothers' True Grit.
In addition to being an experienced trapper, explorer, and Indian fighter, Meek fancies himself a bit of a philosopher, if not a prophet. In a film with little dialogue, and much of it inaudible, he's a veritable chatterbox, regaling all with tall tales of his prowess, and sharing such gnomic observations as "Men are destruction; women are chaos." This does not impress Emily (Michelle Williams), who proves her mettle with increasing boldness as the trek continues. When she bumps into a Native American (Rod Rondeaux), the "Cayuse" who's been shadowing their progress, she flees to her wagon, not in panic, but to fire a warning shot. She knows her way around a muzzle loader, and that's just the beginning of her resourcefulness.
Which comes in handy as the conflict builds between her and Meek, especially after the Cayuse is captured. Meek recommends that they kill him. Solomon (Will Patton), Emily's husband, a decent and pragmatic man and the ostensible leader of the group, suggests they enlist him in their search for water. Emily likewise is moved by compassion for the prisoner, and maybe by something more. But he remains as cryptic as the landscape. He speaks, but his words are not subtitled. He draws signs on the faces of cliffs, but it's unclear whether they are messages to fellow tribesmen or some kind of religious expression. The pioneers' efforts at sign language, their attempts to barter goods for the Cayuse's cooperation, only deepen the mystery.
Some of that mystery might derive from the film's hypnotic pace. At times Reichardt seems in danger of succumbing to the imitative fallacy, re-creating the tedium of an endless trudge across the white waste (luminously shot by Christopher Blauvelt) that's interrupted only by the tasks of primitive survival and the sudden threat of disaster. But this world's impenetrability serves as a crucible for the characters' humanity, whether lost, debased, or indomitable.