I, like many of my generation, was introduced to an educational computer program called “Oregon Trail” when I was in grade school. This was a game where the player would plan a trip from Independence, MO to the Oregon territory by covered wagon early in the 19th Century. Theoretically you were supposed to meticulously ration supplies and make decisions as the line representing your wagon train moved across the map, but most of my classmates never bothered to do that. No, most of the time they’d just use a hunting side feature in which buffalo, deer, and squirrels ran across the screen only to be shot by the player’s crosshairs. This probably wasn’t how the game was intended to be played (unless the programmers wanted to teach players a lesson about how the buffalo was driven to near extinction), but it was about as close to an actual fun video game like “Doom” or “Quake” as you could get in an elementary school computer lab. Judging from Kelly Reichardt’s take on this period of history, I’m willing to bet that she wasn’t likely to have spent much time hunting had she played that game, instead I’m willing to bet she was more than happy to watch that line move across the screen until everyone in her party died of cholera or dysentery or something.
The film depicts an 1845 trek through the American desert by a very small wagon train with consisting of three or so families being led by a mountain man named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). It was supposed to be a relatively smooth trip but the train appears to be lost and they’re slowly running out of water. It’s become more and more clear that Meek doesn’t really know where he’s going and the families are quietly beginning to feel like they’re in a lot of peril. When they’re at their most desperate they see a figure on the horizon looking at them and they come to realize they’re being watched by a Native American scout who they eventually capture. Meek wants to kill the Native American on the spot, but most of the rest of the wagon train decides that he can be used to help them find water. But will this man have any desire to find them water? Or is he more interested in leading them into an ambush?
That plot description makes this sound like a really exciting and tense story, but it really isn’t, at least not the way most movies would be. What Kelly Reichardt has made here differs from the neo-neorealism of her previous efforts and feels more like a Gus Van Sant style minimalistic experiment. Maybe a little too minimalistic for its own good. There are long stretches of silence and it feels like there are some very useful pieces of exposition that seem to be missing. Plot elements, like a possible gold discovery, are dangled in front of the audience only to be ignored later in the film. I also felt like there was a brutal lack of character development to be found here. Unlike Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy where we really come to identify with the central character, we don’t really get to know that much about any of these pioneers, including the main character played by Michelle Williams. Sure, we know roughly what position everyone takes on the task at hand but that’s about it, there’s otherwise very little personality among any of them.
The thing is, I think that Reichardt was less interested in telling an interesting and exciting story than she was in making a feminist statement. Specifically, I think she was trying to show what the traditional western story was like for the women involved… which is to say that it wasn’t very fun. Reichardt goes out of her way to compose point of view shots of the company’s wives watching their husbands discuss the dire situation, their discussion barely even audible to both the audience and the women who aren’t asked for input and don’t offer any even though their lives are at stake. Of course the movie doesn’t posit that the women are any more capable of steering the train correctly than the men are, one woman in particular seems just as clueless about how to react to the Native American as Meek is.
When the Michelle Williams character finally leaves her traditional gender role and picks up a gun, the movie finally starts to feel like a proper western like the ones we’ve seen told from the male perspective. The movie finally comes full circle at the end though, when the men of the company finally decide that their only hope is to give themselves over to the Native American man. At this point we’re given one final shot of the Native American walking into the horizon before the credits role, an ending that seems wildly abrupt but which does make sense in a way. The men of this train are now in the same position that the women were in at the beginning: scared, but forced to trust their lives to someone who may or may not be leading them in the right direction. That we don’t know the outcome of this passive decision only underscores the horror of what it’s like to give up control in such a situation.
While the cinematography is fairly conventional, Reichardt opts to shoot the film in the Academy ratio in order to make these vistas seem confined rather than vast and beautiful. That’s pretty cool, but otherwise the production values here leave something to be desired. The train we see in the movie seems awfully small and I suspect that had more than a little bit to do with the film’s budget. Similarly I found the costumes rather unconvincing and all the actors looked more like rather poor reenactment people than actual 19th century pioneers. That’s not the point of course, but then again there are a lot of things here that aren’t really supposed to be the point it seems. I feel like the film is in many ways the film is almost difficult to the point of distraction, like it needlessly gives up watchability in order to put all the focus on the politics of the situation. In many ways it feels like a film that was made to be written about rather than watched, which is maybe why it’s been catnip for critics, but it’s certainly not something that can be casually recommended. I may need to put more thought into it, and while I acknowledge that there are some interesting ideas to be mined from the film, I can’t really say I like it.
**1/2 out of Four