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In “Meek’s Cutoff,” director Kelly Reichardt painstakingly reveals the hardscrabble existence of a few pioneers — lost and bereft of water — as they spiral from desperation to panic. It’s a compelling narrative with flashes of enigmatic majesty, but those moments are snuffed out by an unrelentingly glacial pace.
Screening Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, “Meek’s Cutoff” spins from the real-life tale of three couples who hired grizzled scout Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, “Dinner for Schmucks”) to lead them to what will be a new settlement. Only one problem: Meek is an obnoxious blowhard who claims to know the land better than he does, and the party is hopelessly lost.
They are running out of water, food and patience. Fears worsen when the would-be settlers capture a lone American Indian (stuntman Rod Rondeaux). Can he lead them to water or, as Meek insists, is their prisoner setting them up for an ambush?
Reichardt proved in 2008’s quietly mesmerizing “Wendy and Lucy” that she’s not afraid to make an audience work. And there are impressive elements here, from a solid cast led by “Wendy and Lucy” alum Michelle Williams (“Blue Valentine”) to a rarely used 4:3 aspect ratio that gives the wide-open prairies a claustrophobic feel.
But “Meek’s Cutoff” is slow to the point of catatonic. Making a movie about deadly tedium that isn’t itself a work of deadly tedium is no small challenge, and Reichardt doesn’t quite succeed.