America’s Wild West wasn’t simply saloons, gunslingers, boom towns and high-noon showdowns. The grim reality for many Americans following the western path toward a better future was a long wearisome wagon trail fraught with dangers. Likewise, the western movie doesn’t have to conform to cowboys and natives in whiskey bottle-strewn thoroughfares. Meek’s Cutoff makes the cut as an atypical western; it’s a period piece about traveling west in the earliest days of the Oregon Trail. In this literal, and figuratively pioneering film, the harsh and mundane truth of the covered-wagon party is brought to the screen in all its somber authenticity.

Director Kelly Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond bring this extremely realistic trailblazing drama to life, where several families are traveling west led by their guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Along the trail, the families become suspicious of Meek and are forced to choose between trusting in the craggy guide who has proven somewhat inconstant or a Native-American prisoner (Rod Rondeaux), whom the group picks up along the way, to steer them on. While roving the plains, one of the women travelers Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) befriends the native prisoner to the ire of Meek and the concern of Emily’s husband Solomon (Will Patton). Ultimately, the power struggle sees the group entrusting their lives to their prisoner. The film also stars notable actors Paul Dano and Shirley Henderson.

Meek’s Cutoff is an exceptionally accurate depiction of pioneers traveling the covered-wagon trail. That is its strength and its weakness. Although the film’s look and feel are dead on for the time and the actors portray trailblazers to a T, the progression of the story is lead-footed and eventually leads to a nonevent.

The scenes are beautifully shot. In the breathtaking Oregon wilderness the families trudge on and on leading their animals with wagons in tow. The actors even practiced skills like leading oxen at pioneer camp prior to filming to make a true-to-life performance. The sound design sets the mood perfectly and is reminiscent of some other recent unconventional westerns. All said and done, the movie creates an amazing historical picture of what it was to travel across the western frontier in the 1800s. Yet, it fails to deliver the impact needed after almost two hours of watching the sullen families walking the plains.

Grade: C

Meek’s Cutoff releases in select theaters April 22.