Director Kelly Reichardt's last film, "Wendy and Lucy," followed a homeless woman at the end of her resources. Her latest, "Meek's Cutoff," does much the same. But here there are more lives on the edge, as Reichardt focuses her detailed, naturalistic approach on the Oregon Trail in 1845.

Director Kelly Reichardt's last film, "Wendy and Lucy," followed a homeless woman at the end of her resources. Her latest, "Meek's Cutoff," does much the same. But here there are more lives on the edge, as Reichardt focuses her detailed, naturalistic approach on the Oregon Trail in 1845.

Thomas Gately (Paul Dano), one of seven settlers being led across the desert, spells out their situation in letters carved into a fallen log: "Lost." Their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), is a loud, self-aggrandizing type who claims to know the territory but can't find a fresh water source.

The film takes the perspective of Meek's most vocal critic, Emily Tetherow ("Wendy and Lucy" star Michelle Williams). When Emily's husband, Solomon (Will Patton), goes off with the men to discuss their options, we're left with her long view and her difficulty hearing the talk in the distance. When the group takes a lone Native American man captive and chooses to use him as a guide instead of heeding Meek's call to kill him, Emily's growing empathy comes through.

As supplies dwindle and tensions build, the beautifully shot view of the landscape expands to sharpen their isolation, and the music creeps into your bones like a chill. It's hard, spare going for both characters and viewers, but the impact is epic.