Wow. What a disappointment this was.
I knew going in that this had certain things in common with the infamous Donner party, and that in general it was about a group of settlers heading west with a guide who seemed increasingly witless. Perhaps I was expecting something with a bit more bite to it, but I’m able to appreciate a wide array of films and can settle in and roll with whatever level of pacing and action a story features.
The cast was all solid, featuring two lead performances from Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood, two actors I really like. And they both did good work here. I’m not sure I agree with the prevailing sentiment that Greenwood’s Stephen Meek was in over his head, or that he was possibly hired to lead more settlers coming west astray to help preserve whatever small community had already been established there. I think there’s a third possibility, which is that he actually did know what he was doing; but that in the face of insurrection and an increasingly angry mob mentality, he had to defer to their wishes just to keep the group together. In fact, I think this makes for the most interesting read of the film, because then it becomes about the breakdown of society when lost– the way no one really wants to give up power or leadership, and the fact that our need for control will sometimes lead us to our own undoing.
The narrative of the film is fairly simple. The group of settlers grow increasingly distrustful of their guide Meek, both his intentions and his competency. They also encounter an American Indian, whom they take hostage. Lost in the desert, it’s all about the search for water. And I’d argue that no matter how experienced a guide Stephen Meek is, there’s still a good likelihood that in traveling across the country on horseback, with the land changing over the seasons and the years, it’s possible if not likely that even he could occasionally be lost, but that in such circumstances, the group would do best to rely on his skills and allow him to lead them to a more habitable place to journey. But they don’t. They’re so distrustful of him, that when he offers advice, without fail they’ll all unanimously decide the opposite of whatever he states to be their best course forward. And they’ll tell him if he doesn’t accept their group vote, they’ll string him up and kill him. At a certain point, Stephen Meek is forced to play baby-sitter, and continue along with them just to try to help them survive their own stubbornness.
Of course, once they have their hostage, they look to the Indian to lead them to water. But no one fully trusts him, most of all Stephen Meek, who has seen some terrible savagery on the part of American Indians in the past. Of course, rooted in his point-of-view as he is, he’s not acknowledging the probably equal savagery perpetrated by himself and other white men. But this scenario leads to an increasing dependence on the Indian, while the group continues to distrust him for various reasons. Some think he’s planning an ambush; some think he’s leaving coded messages behind to his tribe. It’s only Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow, showing more grit and tenacity than the men around her, who tries to create an alliance with the Indian, doing favors for him and attempting to communicate with him. She realizes that he may be their best hope, despite her fears of the unknown and her distrust of a race she has no experience with except for the stories of their savagery. The slow wearing away of the group, their distrust of both Meek and the Indian, of course leads them further into chaos as they begin to turn on each other.
My problem with the film is at a very basic script level. Essentially, what we get is the second act of a movie, and that’s it. Skipping the first act isn’t usually the most advisable course of action, but the film begins as the group is already on their journey and already at odds with their guide. Still, I suppose you could argue that it’s not a deal-breaker here. You could also argue that the second act begins when they find the Indian and take him hostage. So the real problem with the film lies with the ending, or the lack of an entire third act. The party has reached a ridge, which is still far in the distance. They aren’t sure what they’ll face after it– if the Indian has led them into an ambush, which seems unlikely at this point, or if they’ll find their path becomes easier. But it’s here that the film ends.
To be fair, the naturalism of the film, from the costume to the lighting to the minimalism of the acting, is laudable. The costumes seem very true to the period, with the women’s sun bonnet hoods obscuring much more of their faces that is common in most period films. And the seeming dictate to use only natural light means that the night scenes around the campfire are barely visible. It’s not the best aesthetic choice, but it is true to the setting, and it does recreate a more authentic experience for the audience. And of course, there’s a fine ensemble working here, led by Williams and Greenwood, who both turn in complex, understated work that plays to the ambiguities of the script.
But very little happens in the second act, which is essentially the entire running time of the film. The pacing is slow and deliberate, often with minimal dialogue. It’s the kind of movie that you have to make an investment to watch, and you do so with the expectation that the investment will eventually pay off. But the way the movie cops out and ends in the middle with no warning is a shameless, lazy convention on the part of the filmmakers, and I’ve long grown sick of this device where a writer and director think it adds more gravitas to stop short of offering a resolution, or at the very least, an entire third act. The audience has stuck with your piece of storytelling this far, they deserve more than a cut-and-bail with the seeming intention of “now they’ll know what it was like to be in these characters’ shoes and be absolutely uncertain of the future.” There has been a lot of hard work put in by a lot of people to that point, including the audience. And they deserve at least an effort to craft and depict an ending, and a choice to be made about what that ending should be. No matter how beautifully crafted, a table missing a leg or two is not a table, but simply a useless piece of furniture headed for the junkpile.