Who's In It: Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, Rod Rondeaux
The Basics: It's 1845 and some pioneers moving west via covered wagon train on the Oregon Trail hire a man named Meek (Greenwood) to lead them. He's a pompous blowhard, full of uninformed certainty and prejudice, and he gets them completely lost. This fiasco, combined with diminishing supplies, the ongoing fear they carry with them in the form of an inscrutable Native American they've kidnapped along the way and the grinding grim slowness of the journey to nowhere lights a hard-bitten, proto-feminist spark of leadership in one of the band's women (Williams). And she's got the rifle know-how to back up her opinions.
What's The Deal: If there's a genre even more suited to political allegory than horror, it's the Western. And if you can make it through this grim, grimy wide-open-space odyssey without thinking of Iraq then it's because you're not thinking hard enough. Led astray by a man who points out imaginary enemies every chance he can ("Hell's full of bears," "Hell's full of Indians," and "Hell's full of mountains" says Meek, waiting for any lull he can find to ratchet up enough fear to keep his traveler's reliant on his directions.) the would-be settlers grow more and more paranoid and terrified the longer they stay the course. And then? Well, the words "no end in sight" come to mind.
Little Big Cast: Director Kelly Reichart's earlier films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, feature small casts. Old Joy is about two estranged male friends trying and failing to reconnect during a weekend hike in the woods, and Wendy and Lucy is the story of a homeless woman who loses her dog. They're small, intimate movies, full of close-ups and minute details. So here she goes big with an ensemble cast and giant open vistas. And though she seems to feel empathy for her characters she also refuses to coddle them, turning them nearly anonymous with long shots, face-obscuring hats, bonnets and beards, and muffled, mumbled dialogue (the camera is always planted near the women but pointing at the faraway, barely heard, decision-making men). Unlike the individuals in the earlier films, nobody's hoping for goodness to come around the corner. Whatever optimism these characters had evaporated long before they were introduced to the audience; it's more like they somehow know they're lost in the hard, dry landscape forever.
See It For: Michelle Williams's stoic, iron-willed, plain-faced performance. And for the camping tips it inadvertently relays, stuff like: Don't screw around with your water supply and don't kidnap total strangers and then expect them to help you out. Hint: if they're sitting back, watching you flail, smirk on their face, not lifting a finger to assist, you're in trouble.