(director: Kelly Reichardt; screenwriter: Jon Raymond; cinematographer: Christopher Blauvelt; editor: Kelly Reichardt; music: Jeff Grace; cast: Michelle Williams (Emily Tetherow), Bruce Greenwood (Stephen Meek), Will Patton (Solomon Tetherow), Zoe Kazan (Millie Gately), Paul Dano (Thomas Gately), Shirley Henderson (Glory White), Neal Huff (William White), Tommy Nelson (Jimmy White), Rod Rondeaux (the Indian); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Neil Kopp/Anish Savjani/Elizabeth Cuthrell/David Urrutia; Oscilloscope; 2010)

“Offbeat and most interesting western about emigrant pioneers lost in the prairie.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”/”Old Joy”) is the talented female director of this offbeat and most interesting western about emigrant pioneers lost in the prairie, that’s written by her regular writer Jon Raymond. The slow moving drama, with remarkable period detail, is set in 1845 on the Oregon Trail, where three families form a wagon train going through the Cascade Mountains on an unmarked shortcut as suggested by their boastful mountain man guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). The pioneers are worried because they are lost in the harsh desert and need water and food, as their supplies are dwindling. They are frightened that they may not survive and are not sure if the guide purposely misled them because he hates foreigners or is just not a good guide and is in over his head. On the trail they capture a lone Indian, a Cayuse scout (Rod Rondeaux), and decide to keep him alive to see if he can lead them to water, even though their guide wants to kill the savage–fearing you can’t trust Indians.

The characters hardly converse, and when they do it’s hard to understand what they’re saying. There are some long shots in the dark, where nothing can be seen. I have to scratch my head on the value of such shots, even if they do add somewhat to the dark mood. There are also beautiful shots of the rugged vistas. But the mesmerizing western refuses to offer any hope through moral certainties that are offered by most westerns and refuses to resolve the mystery by not telling us how the journey ends.

Reichardt creates a realistic gloomy mood that transports the viewer to the prairie with the struggling pioneers and places them in their shoes. The unsettling movie settles into being a survival pic, which is based on a true incident. In a subtle way it makes the viewer come to their own conclusion about what they’re experiencing and its underlying thread is political, questioning whether the people are ever capable of picking leaders they can trust.

Academy award winner Michelle Williams plays Emily, one of the three obedient bonnet wearing pioneer wives, who speaks little but when she does talk it’s in a soft and forceful voice to express confidence that they have no other choice but to keep the Indian captive alive since the white man’s experience alone cannot lead them to the ‘promised land’ and he’s the only hope. Even though willing to follow the savage Emily’s not certain if she’s right, but displays enough confidence in her decision that even the men go along with her thinking.