Release Date: April 8, 2011 (limited); May 20, 2011 (wider)
Rating: PG (for some mild violent content, brief language and smoking)
Genre: Western, Drama
Run Time: 104 min.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Actors: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Rod Rondeaux, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson

“Will the territory go American?” a woman asks early in Meek’s Cutoff. Set in 1845 Oregon, the northwest is a dry, barren, foreboding place that holds the promise of gold to those willing to risk life and limb to find it. It’s not yet American territory (that happens in 1848), but the characters’ pursuit of a better life in uncharted country represents an American impulse to settle the land and make a better life. The picture it paints of that task is unsettling yet vivid, with a central performance from Bruce Greenwood (Dinner for Schmucks) that should be remembered during awards season.

Among the film’s opening images is the word “LOST” being carved into wood by one of the men in a group traveling the Oregon Trail (Meek’s Cutoff becomes an offshoot of the Oregon Trail). Three families—Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams and Will Patton); Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan); and William and Glory White (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson), with their son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson)—have hired Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to guide them across the Cascade mountains. The film is based on a true story, although in real life, Meek took a much larger party along with him.

Things aren’t going well, as the four-letter etched word indicates. As they travel in covered wagons, both humans and animals grow weary. Their destination is nowhere in sight, but more alarmingly, their water supply is running low and there are no signs of drinkable water along their route. They wonder aloud if hired guide Meek is deliberately misleading them in an effort to sabotage American independence. Then, minutes later, they use racially charged language that, while common at the time, serves as a reminder that independence was not shared by all.

The film is not an overt lesson in racial politics or historical atrocities, but it does not shy away from such things. When the traveling men capture a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) and Meek recommends killing him, Emily suggests the group use the man as a guide. He knows the land, and Emily hopes he can lead them to water. But Meek sows seeds of fear, recounting horrific tales of the Indians who, in the guise of helping the settlers, betrayed them into the hands of hostile native tribes.

Meek’s Cutoff is a 104-minute exploration of suspicion, mistrust and the American spirit, warts and all. Base instincts—survival, fear, the promise of wealth—keep the characters moving, haltingly, toward an uncertain destination. But it’s the journey, not the destination, that director Kelly Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond, who collaborated previously on Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy, have in mind. Which of the characters are essential to completing the journey? Who is expendable? Is the story a parable about the American experience?