Kelly Reichardt's ambitious fourth feature proceeds with purpose, but winds up as dry as its high-desert setting. Meek's Cutoff opens with a needlepoint title card ("Oregon, 1845") and sets right about documenting women's work: carrying baskets, washing dishes, drying clothes. The first sign of trouble comes as one husband finishes carving "LOST" into the carcass of a tree.
Three families have charged mangy Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood)—a prolific bullshit artist ("Hell's full of bears, Jimmy") and, in his tasseled deerskin suit, also a bit of a dude—with guiding them west. He promised a shortcut but has led them astray, something he displays little remorse or concern about. "Is he ignorant, or just plain evil?" asks Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams). A clear answer never emerges, and as suspicion mounts and the water supply dwindles, pink-bonneted Emily finds herself calling the shots, relying on a captured Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) with motives even more uncertain than Meek's.
Reichardt, collaborating again with writer Jon Raymond, painstakingly retrofits her Western. She adopts a women's-eye view of men-only conferences, which, barely within earshot, become fascinating miniature studies in codes of masculinity. She drains the covered-wagon journey of traditional sweep: The settlers shuffle along slowly to the high whine of grinding spokes and axles. Perhaps to further resist the chosen genre's tendency toward types, Reichardt also permits cast members to use wildly divergent acting styles.
Williams does quiet resolve, and Paul Dano a fretful C3PO routine, but Greenwood runs roughshod over everyone, rowdily barking tall tales and talking and talking and talking around the problem at hand. But so jarring is Greenwood's performance that this otherwise cliché-averse film sometimes seems to be a featurelength working-out of that old-standby stereotype—the guy who won't ask for directions, or even admit that he's lost.