With this film, Kelly Reichardt has made what is perhaps the most authentic and realistic portrayal of life during the early days of the Oregon Trail. As a result, this is very artsy, and not really your typical entertaining "movie" type of thing. It's more like an experience or an exercise in struggle, and seeing the breakdown of trust and will power in the face of adversity.
So, this basically fails as enntertainment, but excels as a non-documentary, documentary. And, for the most part, I really dug this.
The movie doesn't really start or end in proper fashion, but simply exists. The year is 1845, the earlist time for the Oregon Trail. Three families have enlisted the help of mountain man Steven Meek who has them stray from the trail in order to take what he says is a shortcut across the Cascade Mountains. As it turns out, Meek is wrong and the party end up lost in the dry, stark, and barren high plains, left with no fresh water or hope. Not only that, but the group encounters a wandering Native American who may or may not be trying to help them, just like how Meek may or may not have intentionally gotten them lost...
By the way, this is based on true events. Of course, the movie opts for an ambiguous conclusion, but it's safe to say that there's some darkness and tragedy going on. The presentation is also very slow, deliberate, and contains a very loose narrative with sparse dialogue. Also, the scenes with the Indian are done without subtitles, so all the characters (and the audience) are left to interpret for themselves what is going on, which I really appreciated.
The film is very much like something Werner Herzog would do. There's even a scene that's something of a reverse Fitzcarraldo. Yeah, not much happens, but I found the film oddly compelling and engaging. Sure, it's a bit tedious at first, and there's not much character development, but that's what makes it so fascinating. It really is like looking in on real life. People really do mundane things, and aren't always interesting, and that's what the bulk of this film is: people traveling, doing chores, and trying to survive.
So of course this isn't for all tastes, but it's definitely well done. The art direction, costumes, and period details are top notch. The cinematogrpahy is gorgeous, and the landscapes look terrific. There's a talented cast here, and I love their willingness to be a part of an artsyt indie project like this that bucks conventions and sticks to its vision all the way through. Michelle Williams (who looks badass on the poster) is good, Paul Dano is okay, and Will Patton is decent, but the film belongs to Bruce Greenwood, unrecognizable underneath a long scraggly beard and greasy long hair as Meek. It's a badass performance, and it's cool seeing him be grungy with an undercurrent of menace.
By this point in my review you should know how I feel and have a good idea of whether you want to see this or not. Leave it at that.