The Athens Film Festival started on Friday, and PJ and I had a great night out as a result: dinner at O’Betty’s (I LOVE their tofudog — I always order a “shy” Lily), two movies at the festival, and a quick beer in between.

One of the two movies we saw was Meek’s Cutoff, which is about a small group of pioneers who are lost in the Oregon desert on their way west. I only knew two things about it before seeing it: it is set in the 1840s and it stars Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, and Zoe Kazan. Here’s the trailer:

The film follows three families trying to make it to The Dalles, Oregon. They have hired Stephen Meek, played by Bruce Greenwood, to guide them. Meek is an unemployed fur trapper who claims to know the route; it turns out that he doesn’t. Just as the group realizes that Meek has gotten them lost, they come across an Indian, played by Ron Rondeaux. Meek argues that they should kill him before he brings his tribe to massacre them all, but the leader of the group, Solomon Tetherow, played by Will Patton, maintains that the native can lead them to water. The rest of the movie explores the pioneers’ individual responses to these decisions.

I loved this movie. One of the things I love most about it is how quiet it is. There are segments in which nothing really happens, in which the camera simply pans across the landscape, and in which we just see the pioneers going about their daily chores — building fires, gathering wood, making breakfast, etc.

These moments give us a much greater sense of what being a nineteenth-century pioneer must have been like than any narrative exposition or dialogue could ever do. I found these quiet moments fascinating and really brave — how often does a movie let us linger on an image of clouds or give us nothing but the sound of rushing water or show us a character kneading bread?

The plot is also rather slow and quiet. Nothing huge happens — no unexpected overnight flooding that washes away their camp, no huge battle with a tribe of Indians, no one goes dramatically crazy. Instead, we simply follow these people’s efforts to survive. Rather than an action pic, Meek’s Cutoff is a more of a psychological drama. The point is to explore these characters’ responses to their decisions rather than to watch them do something dramatic.

Consequently, the success of the film is really dependent on the actors’ performances. Williams is great as Emily Tetherow, Solomon’s wife. Just as he is the leader of the men, Emily is de facto leader of the women. When a decision needs to be made, she leads the effort to make it. When she can share her bread with the others, she does. While she’s very much a pioneer’s wife, the movie shows us how important this role can be to the survival — physical and emotional — of the group.

Greenwood largely disappears into the role of Meek. It took me a while to figure out that it was him playing the part. As I watched the film, I kept thinking how un-hammy his performance is, especially when compared to Jeff Bridges in True Grit. He’s an unsympathetic character, but Greenwood doesn’t resort to acting tricks and ticks to convey Meeks’s less admirable qualities.

Kazan and Dano are the youngest couple on the journey and as such as clearly the greenest. They respond to their increasingly desperate situation with more fear and anxiety than their older companions. Kazan’s Millie, in particular, becomes increasingly unstable as a result of their growing thirst and decreasing rations. The appearance of the Indian only makes matters worse, as she and her husband Thomas believe Meeks’s stories of impending doom at the hands of wild savages.

The film also stars Shirley Henderson, who I love in everything I’ve seen her in. She plays a pregnant woman whose husband is torn between the two poles of Solomon’s optimism and Thomas’s pessimism. She’s great, as usual.

Wikipedia has a good article about Meek Cutoff. It appears that the filmmakers took the historical experience of a much larger group and condensed it into this small independent film about three families. The screenplay, by Jonathan Raymond, does this superbly. He captures a sense of intimacy in the face of nature’s grand, potentially catastrophic power. I won’t give anything away, but I thought the ending was especially brilliant.

All in all, I loved everything about this movie. Because it’s a little film making the rounds of film festivals, I assume it won’t be the kind of movie to compete for Oscars next year. But it should. It’s a masterpiece of neo-western filmmaking.