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Originally published Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 4:57 PM

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Movie review

'Meek's Cutoff': Wagon-train tale blazes an arty trail through Oregon

A movie review of "Meek's Cutoff," a poetically spare Western about a small wagon train lost in the rocky Oregon desert. Michelle Williams stars.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'Meek's Cutoff,' with Bruce Greenwood, Michelle Williams. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, from a screenplay by Jonathan Raymond. 104 minutes. Rated PG for mild violent content, smoking and brief language. Harvard Exit.

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Vast and mysterious, the American West of Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond's "Meek's Cutoff" is not quite like any other landscape.

While several standard elements of traditional Westerns turn up in this follow-up to Reichardt and Raymond's "Wendy and Lucy," the tone is leisurely and frankly arty. The cumulative effect, however, can be impressive, especially when the script focuses on an Oregon wagon train's survival skills.

Three families put their trust in a mountain man, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a blowhard who offers a short cut. The would-be settlers become increasingly challenged by the elements; a repeat of the Donner party seems possible.

But the filmmakers and their carefully chosen actors are more interested in creating a mood. When a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) turns up, the would-be settlers don't know whether to execute him or use him as a guide.

One wife (Michelle Williams) takes pity on him. She also wants him to "owe me something." The script's daringly open ending has everything to do with what the audience believes about this forced relationship.

Some images are reminiscent of the ethereal glow of "Days of Heaven," but there's less music, less fast editing. Instead, the filmmakers focus on the process of crossing a river or defanging a lynch mob — or maneuvering inside a vein-tightening bonnet.

John Hartl:

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