Lost wandering in the Oregon desert for five weeks when the journey should have taken two, low on water, food and patience, a young emigrant played by Michelle Williams says of the group's ego-driven guide: "Is he ignorant, or just plain evil? That's my quandary."
Williams' character, Emily Tetherow, was talking about Stephen Meek, a real-life mountain man who led 200 wagons into the Oregon desert in 1845 claiming to know a shortcut through the Cascade Mountains, and ended up instead in an area without water. He is a central figure in the new movie "Meek's Cutoff," which premiered Sunday at the Venice Film Festival in competition for the Golden Lion.
Though the story is historical in nature, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt said she and the scriptwriter saw more modern references when they started the project right around the time that photos were emerging of soldiers posing with Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
"Just following a leader who doesn't know what he's doing, who's maybe either ignorant or stupid. You are not really sure what his motives are," Reichardt told reporters. "And needing information from someone who's completely culturally different, and whose culture you don't trust."
Though that central question expresses the tension in the movie — and may ring true to many viewers in spheres other than political — the movie itself is a spare tale of a journey gone awry and not a political treatise. Low on action, but rich in drama, it is by no means a typical Western.
In the film, three couples have broken away from the main wagon train to try their luck with Meek. Tension arises as the families try to decide whether to continue to take Meek's advice or if they should trust a Native American wanderer who crosses their path.
The movie is told from the women's point of view, drawn from diaries kept by Western-bound pioneers, and its beauty is in the details: A frontier littered with heirlooms, a broken mirror tossed from a wagon and abandoned, all suggesting hardship as emigrants unsentimentally lighten the load.
"I figure the historical truths may reveal themselves in the minutiae, in the every day labor. That is what the women's diaries reveal. It was really monotonous and it was really lonely," Reichardt said. "The journals start out very romantic about the journey, and in the end it's: 'built two fires, washed clothes, cooked beans.'"
"Meek's Cutoff" is the second of Reichardt's films in which Williams appears, following "Wendy and Lucy" in 2009. The actress was in Venice for the red carpet premiere later Sunday but didn't attend the press conference
"I love working with Michelle. She is very game for the kind of films we are making. They are really hard and there are no comforts at all," the director said.
The actors did a week of pioneer camp before shooting, in the area near Bend, Oregon where Meek's wagon train was lost and which Reichardt said had changed little from pioneer days. They learned how to make fires without matches, discussed what families would have taken with them out West based on their status and worked with the animals, including teams of oxen that drew the wagons.
"I am a big fan of Westerns, of Nicholas Ray and Monte Hellman and Anthony Mann, and I love the way those films are sort of styled and shot, and the use of landscape. But a lot of the themes are completely unrelatable to me," Reichardt said.
Shifting the story to the women's point of view changed the themes.
"It's really about labor and space and stillness. So my challenge was to find how the stillness could act in a dramatic way." Reichardt said.
The film tries to avoid cliches about Native Americans while examining the settlers' mistrust in the stranger. The part is played by Rod Rondeaux, an actor and stuntman who learned the Nez Perce language for the role, although none of his dialogue is translated, leaving the audience, along with the emigrants, to try to interpret what he is saying.
"The thing of avoiding cliches is really hard," Reichardt said. "I mean as soon as you are putting a Native American in front of a blue sky with a bare chest and beads on, you start to have a heart attack. 'Oh, my. What am I doing? At the same time, you don't want to avoid it. The story is told from the point of view of white immigrants."
"Meek's Cutoff" is one of 22 films, plus one surprise movie still to be announced, competing for the Golden Lion, to be awarded Sept. 11.