This minimalist historic Western stays closer to Reichardt’s previous work than would first appear. Like Old Joy (which won a Tiger Award in 2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek's Cutoff is an existential road movie with a major role for the Pacific Northwest landscape, in this case the Oregon desert.
The reckless mountain guide Stephen Meek got lost there in 1845 with a group of three pioneering families. Reichardt’s regular scriptwriter Jon Raymond based his work partly on the diaries of the women in the company. That female perspective is unusual in a Western, as is the calm narrative tempo, the narrow 1.37 format, the trance-like silence (accentuated by creaking wagons) and the focus on everyday tasks. The filmmakers do not deny that an allegorical parallel can be drawn with the Bush era. The colonists have to choose between their unreliable white leader and a Native American who could be seen as a terrorist or as President Obama.