… existentialism among the pioneers …

Which way to turn?  Whom can we trust?

It’s 1845 and three couples, one wife pregnant, one couple with a little boy, journeying west in covered wagons, are lost in Oregon territory.  Low on food and lower on water, they’ve been led into a trackless wilderness by their arrogant guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who thought he knew a better way.  Fighting fear, everyone refrains from complaining but in time the men admit among themselves, “We should have followed the main trunk.”

We’re used to Westerns that show us the appeal of the vast, mountainous, natural terrain but this is a dry, desolate stretch of Oregon that would likely appeal only to those who after seeing the photos want to trek across Mars, pulled by oxen in a wagon and without a map, GPS or support system.

At every juncture, choices have to be made with no useful evidence and life and death stakes.  With water low in the wooden barrels (“We should have taken on more water at the river”), Meek returns from a scouting trip with a good report: there’s a lake ahead!  They arrive at its shores to find that the water’s too alkaline for drinking (think sulphur springs).  And the lake’s so broad and presumably deep — much more of an obstacle than the fast rushing river they’ve crossed — that it stops them dead in their progress westward.  Furthermore, the lake extends too far North-South to see either end.  They’ll have to go around it, with no knowledge of its full extent.

But should they go via the North or the South?  No way to know.  The women hear the men whispering, “north”, “south”.  Meek is for going North;  they’ve learned the hard way his knowledge and judgment can’t be trusted — but that’s still not an answer to the question, is it?

Meek, with a history as an Indian killer, fans the fear of Indians who may be in the region.  A new crisis occurs when an Indian (Ron Rondeaux) appears on the crest of a hill on horseback.  Two of the men go out after him and capture him and — they don’t have much but they have guns — bring him back to the night’s camp tied up and without his horse.  He’s in their power.  What should they do with him?  Should they let him live or kill him?  Meek’s for killing him on the spot.  The men argue, uncertain.  The Indian listens to the men debate his fate, not knowing the language but knowing exactly what they’re talking about.

The Indian lives, at least for now, and here the leadership subtly shifts.  The women have hovered in the background as the men made the decisions that would affect their living or dying, but now the young, calm, competent wife, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), makes some decisions of her own, first to bring food to the tethered Indian.  Meek’s enraged.  So, at first, is the proud, angry Indian.  But when, later, she brings him water, he accepts it:  the Indian’s made some decisions, too.  Perhaps there’s a humanitarian feeling in Emily but her explanation for protecting the Indian is purely pragmatic:  “I want him to owe me.”

Dogged by whether they should trust the Indian but in need of food and water, they decide to follow him instead of killing him, Meek tight behind him with his rifle, as the conflict between Emily and Meek intensifies to a thrilling climax.

As if you were voyaging along with them, you get to know all your fellow travelers over time and really well.  The three wives and three husbands differ distinctly from one another in strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncracies — no mix-up about who’s who but there are some interesting surprises about who responds how to the grueling voyage.

The emotional intimacy of husbands and wives — persisting even when their only times alone together are in the bare interior of a covered wagon at the end of a day’s dusty trek — is engaging.  The volatile conflict between Emily and Meek forms a gripping dramatic focus.

And as often happens in Westerns, the Indian is the most charismatic character:  he’s not sentimentalized, nor overly handsome, but there’s great charm in the way he takes in the ways of this alien group from behind a largely stoic mask, registering how they’re like him and what he knows, and how they’re not.

Which way to turn?  Whom can we trust?   The highest stakes and not a clue as to how to chose.  But a choice has to be made.

This is a brilliant movie, intimately human and profoundly philosophical — and what an ending!