Meek's Cutoff is an ambitious film trapped by a budget too low to properly realize it. The film is based on an actual event that took place in 1845, although it bears little semblance to those events.
The plot, here goes;
Seven, count 'em, seven settlers (not including the fetus inside the pregnant lady) in three, count 'em, three wagons cross the forbidding Oregon desert trusting their lives to their incredibly hairy guide Stephan Meek (played by Bruce Greenwood). It's clear from the get-go that Meek has no clue as to where they are at, much less if they are heading in the right direction. But since any decision they make could be just as bad, they decide to keep following Cousin It...I mean, Meek until they run across one, count 'em, one Native American who may know the right way...or not.
On the plus side, the framing of the landscape, the sparse dialogue, and solid acting elevates this effort above the average "indie" fare. Lead by the really fine Michelle Williams (who bears a strong resemblance to Renee Zellweger), the rest of the cast follow admirably, especially the aforementioned Greenwood, Shirley Henderson (best known as "Moaning Myrtle" from the Harry Potter series), and Rod Rondeaux who plays the Native American in such a way that we have absolutely no clue what his intentions, if any, he has.
Indeed, the very subject matter of how people react in this particular type of situation is enough to generate a palatable tension as they press on into the wilderness. There is also a strong attention to the "details" of frontier life. The gathering of wood, the keeping of fires, the attention to the water supply that helps set the proper mood. Speaking as a amateur historian, there was nothing terribly out-of-place about the clothes, tools, and firearms we see on the screen (the flintlocks were certainly appropriate). I do question the all-metal handles on the buckets and perhaps the general style of the woman's clothing as being more post-Civil War. But even if I'm right, such things tend to get overlooked anyway and it certainly didn't stand in the way of my enjoyment of the film.
On the down side, the limited budget undercuts a great deal of that very tension. Settlers in 1845 didn't cross the street with only three wagons, much less the 1,500 miles to Oregon. But even putting that historical error aside, the party is so small that even if they had stuck to the trail and caught every break, it's almost impossible to see how they could make it. All it would take is some bad weather or running across the wrong type of folks (in effect, bandits) or sickness which would wipe them out. So given the odds, our band of intrepid heroes is doomed from the start and the film becomes a waiting game to see what unfortunate event will eventually do them in.
Also, one sub-plot of a child's discovery of gold is dropped almost as soon as it's brought up and the other characters' reaction to this claim, particularly Meek himself, is impossible to believe. Even if you're stuck out in the middle of nowhere, far from any known source of water, it would take only a few seconds on horseback for any of the characters to verify the child's story. Yet no one does a thing save for one settler who sets up a "marker" so flimsy that a gentle gust of wind would topple it over. And even though there was a reported "discovery" of gold made during the actual event in 1845 (something that has not been verified to this day), why include such a "non-event" in the film itself?
As for the ending, which has generated some controversy, all I can say is that it fits pretty well with what such a low budget film is capable of. So while I wasn't all that miffed, many in the theater I watched the film in were not so generous. Perhaps having invested so much, they were naturally disappointed when it didn't pay off in any direct way. At least the theater staff could be glad that no one thought to bring a bag full of vegetables along.