The year is 1845, the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, and a wagon team of three families has hired the mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. Claiming to know a short cut, Meek leads the group on an unmarked path across the high plain desert, only to become lost in the dry rock and sage. Over the coming days, the emigrants must face the scourges of hunger, thirst and their own lack of faith in each other's instincts for survival. When a Native American wanderer crosses their path, the emigrants are torn between their trust in a guide who has proven himself unreliable and a man who has always been seen as the natural enemy.Written by
Early in the film, three women are walking across the baked desert following the wagons, presumably to the west. The guide may be off course but nobody would mistake east for west. Yet the womens' shadows are to their left as they walk, and since the sun would always be in the southern sky in Oregon, they could only be walking east. A basic detail that a director should not miss. See more »
[reading from Genesis]
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. And Adam called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
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It is telling that Reichardt chose to shoot this film in Academy ratio. Right away we know this will not be a romantic image of the Old West, with breathtaking, expansive vistas (although the cinematography is lovely in its own way). Instead, we are constricted, claustrophobic, uncertain of what lies just beyond our limited field of vision. It is a film of quiet desperation, hard-scrabble survival in painstaking detail, and growing mistrust. In some ways it evokes the horror genre, perhaps something like a subdued BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, as the severity of the situation deepens and doubt takes hold. The film manages a sense of gritty realism without resorting to overstating the harsh conditions for dramatic effect. The travelers aren't stumbling around filthy and bloody, they maintain a semblance of civility even as the promise of civilization seems more and more doubtful. The ending will no doubt frustrate many, but didn't bother me one bit.
As for the cast, Michelle Williams impresses me again with her thoughtful restraint, and I'm always pleased to see Shirley Henderson. Greenwood does well with a part that could easily have called too much attention to itself, and for once I didn't hate Paul Dano. The score is wonderful, as haunting and sparse as the landscape. I adored WENDY AND LUCY, and quite liked OLD JOY (in fact, that film seems better in hindsight than I gave it credit for). Reichardt is emerging as one of American cinema's most distinctive and worthwhile voices. I look forward to her next endeavor.
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