I have not seen, in quite some time, a movie that has messed with my head as thoroughly as Meek's Cutoff has these past couple of days: torn between my lustful admiration for its visual aesthetic, my removed admiration for its narrative anti-flow, and my utter bafflement as to whether its climax-deflating final scene is the necessary and only conclusion to the film, or a smug cop-out because "art movies have peculiar endings". That the film is so far beyond my ability to peg it down is, I suppose, sign enough that it's doing something right; do we not, after all, long for that movie which does not spoon-feed us, but demands active engagement and thought? Meek's Cutoff is assuredly that, riding a thin line between the intangibly graceful and the merely frustrating in its rejection of narrativity, extremely counter-dramatic even by the standards of director Kelly Reichardt's notoriously slow-moving, plotless features.

Meek is Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), and his cutoff can be interpreted in two ways: as the shortcut he hoped to make in leading a small wagon train across the western American desert, and as the point when the members of said wagon train begin to turn on him, "cutting off" his leadership, as it were. Nor should the pioneers feel terribly guilty about throwing Meek over; for he has led them into lands where there is not a drop of water to be found, and things are getting worse by the day. After a while, the group encounters a Native American (Rod Rondeaux), a fellow who is plainly well-hydrated, and so begins an internal debate: follow him, or kill him before he kills us? and if we do follow him for how long? Questions not made easier by Meek's blustering insistence that he knows what's going on, in the face of clear evidence that he does not.

That's not the scenario, mind you, or the opening act - that is the whole damn movie, right there. "Pioneers can't decide whether to trust there shiftless guide or a possible murderous Indian, and they're about to die of thirst", for 104 minutes. Needless to say, Meek's Cutoff is not a film to all tastes.

Initially, the seven voyagers following Meek - the Tetherows, Emily (Michelle Williams) and Soloman (Will Patton), the Whites, Glory (Shirley Henderson) and William (Neal Huff) and son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson), and the young Gatelys, Millie (Zoe Kazan) and Thomas (Paul Dano) are sort of an undifferentiated blob of humanity, with Emily, Glory and Thomas standing out primarily because they are played by more famous actors. It's one of the most cunning facet of Reichardt's treatment of Jonathan Raymond's screenplay that these figures become increasingly distinct and personal as we spend time watching them go through the miserable and repetitive actions of being on a wagon train; there are none of what you might call "character moments", just a good number of minutes-long scenes of almost total silence, simply observing people. It's a damn sight close to Reichardt's 2006 breakthrough Old Joy, in fact, in the way that characterisation is derived from watching behaviors rather than hearing words spoken.

At a certain point, Emily more or less becomes the main character of the film, as the first and most active partisan of following the unknown native, not because of some anachronistic political correctness, but because she astutely notes that it's probably the one chance they have at not dying (there's a gorgeous little scene where she mends his shoe, acerbically noting that she wants him to be in her debt). As such, Emily probably has the most "character", and Williams's performance is the most effective in the movie (though the deliberately stylised manner in which Reichardt and Raymond build character makes it hard to necessarily peg these as "good" or "bad" performances). Even so, one doesn't leave Meek's Cutoff having the sense that it's some kind of tribute to a strong-willed Western woman, or even a particularly edifying elucidation of one. Emily is distinct, and Emily is realistic, but Emily is also a bit of a placeholder in the grand scheme of things.

For Meek's Cutoff is not about these people's lives or deaths; not even about their suffering. It's about the brutal contrast between nature and the human; the main character of the film is neither Emily nor Meek, but the Oregon desert, a plane of scrub and dried mudflats. Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (shooting his first feature after a long career as camera assistant), using an exciting unconventional 1.37:1 aspect ratio, capture the quintessence of the landscape: the open aspect ratio serves to emphasis just how much of it there is in every direction, making the people seem awfully small in comparison, and Blauvelt captures the desert light in just such a way to emphasise how desolate and brown everything is. The film captures the feeling of that place like one of the great Westerns of yore, the kind where the heat and dryness roll off the screen. I was desperate for something to drink after Meek's Cutoff; and as far as the experience of watching the movie captures that hopeless, parched spirit, I have to consider it some kind of minor masterpiece.

For that matter, the film's deliberate anti-plot can be seen as the attempt to recreate the endlessness of being on a wagon train, though I think it might be subtler than that (and if not, it's still a valid defense of the film's "boring" pace). If Meek's Cutoff can be said to be specifically about the landscape, it's chiefly about how the landscape smothers the human beings walking through it (always from right to left - I don't quite know why all of the important action in the film is from right to left, but it impressed the hell out of me), and could be more dramatically called a story of humans at the mercy of their environment. And that's what makes it all click: the travelers at Meek's mercy, Meek and the rest at the Indian's mercy, the whole lot of them at the mercy of whatever water they can never find. It has been noted elsewhere that the film's "climax", in which Meek pulls a gun on the Indian and Emily pulls a gun on Meek, comes far too long before the ending shows up, but the very idea of a climax is an artificial overlay on the central conflict of Us vs. the World; though a bold and brilliant scene - and the source of the very best acting in the movie - the standoff is ultimately more about the futility of any actions the characters might attempt (if anybody dies in that moment, it's hard to say that anything changes, other than somebody feeling like they let off some steam) than about resolving the tensions between them. They go right back to the same pattern of being entirely at the mercy of the landscape, with the dramatic moment that would have wrapped things up in a bow if this were a normal movie simply petering out as nothing but a mere distraction from the actual stakes. (For my part, I'd anyway say that the climax of the movie - that is, the moment of greatest dramatic shock - is when some of the last of their precious water splashes on the ground; the last time we see any water in a movie that toys with us by opening on a lengthy shot of a river).

If this reading has any merit at all, it comes at the expense of showing Meek's Cutoff to be nihilistically predetermined; a reading that Reichardt's choice of final shot doesn't discourage (truth be told, I don't think my ambivalence towards the non-ending is because of where it occurs in the story, but because of the image upon which the fade to black occurs; a little too flippant, a little too "fuck you, characters, I've taken you as far as I can, now deal"). There's a certain bit about the resiliency of the human animal in there, but it's not inspiring so much as it is gobsmacked at just how much punishment we can take; and yet it didn't leave me feeling sour at all. There's a kind of Tarkovskian undertone to what happens, unless I am very much mistaken - Tarkovsky light, by all means, let's not go crazy with over-praise. But the God's-eye-view of the action, coming from a place that isn't as harshly cynical as in, say, a Kubrick or Antonioni film, but nonetheless acknowledges without sentiment that humans can suffer and it can be our own fault; I for one associate that kind of aesthetic with Tarkovsky, especially when coupled to the almost religious intensity of Meek's Cutoff's landscape photography. The film has undeniable flaws - there is a thin line between all these wonderful things I've said and sheer pretentious smugness, and at times Reichardt leans over as far as she can without tipping - but it's so singular, beautiful, and troubling (after three days, I haven't stopped thinking about it for ten minutes) that those flaws come nowhere close to invalidating the whole piece.