Critical darling Kelly Reichardt (OLD JOY/’06; WENDY AND LUCY/’08) moves as deliberately as ever in this quiet annoyance. She’s still wandering into the wilderness, but this time in period setting directing a tiny band of wagoneering pioneers as they follow their increasingly unreliable guide. Running low on supplies & beginning to harbor mutinous thoughts, they come across a lone (lost?) Native American. Could this stranger in a strange land know a better route? Or will he lead them to slaughter? That is, if their miffed braggadocio-of-a-guide doesn’t shoot the man from race hatred, spite or jealousy. Reichardt starts right in the middle of the story, but even moving at a snail’s pace, you never get much of a handle on the characters. Or perhaps it's just that the fine cast (Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Will Patton) promise more than her one-note creations can deliver. There’s something fusty in the laconic dialogue, unreadably dark night-time shooting & even in the use of Academy Ratio framing. It's an artistic discipline that functions more like a hair-shirt than a spur to creativity, before she pulls the plug with a Lady-or-the-Tiger tease ending.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: John Ford’s WAGON MASTER/’50-meets-Nicolas Roeg’s WALKABOUT’71 sums up and improves on this. But if it’s 'Westward-Ho' pioneering you’re a’hankering for, there’s James Cruze’s hit silent THE COVERED WAGON/’23 or Raoul Walsh’s stiff early Talkie flop THE BIG TRAIL/’30, physical touchstones to the past in spite of much melodrama.