Sporadically fascinating but ultimately forgettable, 'Meek's Cutoff' is the most poorly played game of Oregon Trail I've ever seen, except director Kelly Reichardt ('Wendy and Lucy') is more interested in afflicting her settlers with paranoid tedium than with cholera. The year is 1845 and three married couples (intermittent offspring included) are trekking across the Oregon desert with their hooded wagons in search of, well, anything else. Water would be nice, and if they happen to stumble across some gold along the way, they'll take that, too. The party is lead by a paid frontiersman named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, unrecognizable beneath the scruffy muck of the era), a suspicious and confidently virile sort whose stubborn but potentially false directions might prove fatal in such dire circumstances. Tensions run high as resources run low, but when the group captures a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux) and forces him to lead them to whatever oasis supplies his community, the question of water is superseded by fears of an ambush.
A detailed period piece like 'Meek's Cutoff' initially appears to be something of a departure for Reichardt, a minimalist filmmaker whose brief and bare portraits of American lives seem found rather than filmed. 'River of Grass' was a slacker masterpiece, 'Old Joy' was a widely acclaimed whisper between two friends camping in the woods of Oregon, and 'Wendy and Lucy' was a gently devastating tale of a girl and her dog. But don't be fooled by the baked and expansive backdrop of her latest film or its believably harried scenes of musket cleaning, for better or worse this is vintage Reichardt. Introspection, unmannered conversations, and swallowed emotions are the name of the game, and a series of deceptively mundane moments seem to cohere into a rather pointed narrative when no one's looking.