Screengrab: Heading West Into Fear

RICHARD LUTZ rides west to find the outstanding film on the box this week…and it’s a modern classic

Screen GrabSo, you have these pioneer covered wagon movies with the settlers moving, moving ever westward. They have hard honest faces. They are brave, they take on the weather, the native Indians, the landscape.

But they have hard as nails certitudes. Right?

They are John Wayne, they are Randolph Scott, Clint. They are directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks and they are an anthem to America and American-ness that bonded white culture in the 19th century. That was the west according to Hollywood for decades.

But then Comes the 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff (Thursday, 11am, Film4) a film with all those certainties evaporating in the solitude and dust of the Oregon High Desert. This movie re-defines how we see the western expansion.

It was lonely, frightening, there was stupidity, bone-headed bad decision making, a lack of water, fear and mis-trust. There is no romantic thrust to the horizon. It was bumbling, it was foolhardy and full of edgy questions that meant life or death.

The movie is based on real events from 1845. Three hard pressed families, dirty, wan, worn, decide to hire a mysterious loudmouth trapper, Stephen Meek, to take a shortcut to the verdant Willamette Valley in Western Oregon. They slowly begin to mistrust their guide as it becomes obvious he is lost. Then they capture a lone Indian. Not a fearsome brave, but a quiet introspective timid middle-aged guy. They make him find water for survival but Meek wants to hang the prisoner.

Who to trust as the water runs out, the heat and dust intrude and the landscape seems to crush them?

Director Kelly Reichardt films a slow burner of a story. Her lens takes in the harsh bleak high desert with the same languid eye used by Terrence Malick in his movies. Michelle Williams (seen in My Week With Marilyn and Brokeback Mountain) is the settler who takes the lead when all others fold and are diminished by fear and thirst. Bruce Greenwood is the loudmouth lost trapper who refuses to admit he is wrong and equally out his depth as the swirl of silence envelops this wagon train of lost fools.

The first 30 minutes of Meek’s Crossing are almost wordless to underline how these dirty travellers are dwarfed by the unending bleak landscape. Then comes clips of dialogue over badly lit campfires as the three families argue in the encroaching darkness and doubt all around them.

And over them is Meek himself, a braggart, a charleton, a story-spinner who might…just might…. get them to the blessed land westward. Or might not.