VENICE There is no sheriff, no shootout at sunrise, no standoff between cowboys and Indians.
"Meek's Cutoff," in competition at the Venice film festival, is U.S. director Kelly Reichardt's take on the Western, told through the eyes of a group of women traveling along the Oregon Trail in 1845 in search of a better life.
The movie is based on the true story of Stephen Meek, a guide who led a group of settlers into the desert only to get lost in an area where there was no water.
"I'm a big fan of Westerns, of Nicholas Ray and Monte Hellman's films," Reichardt told reporters after a press screening ahead of the official world premiere on Sunday.
"I love the way those films are styled and shot and the use of landscape, but a lot of the themes of them are completely unrelatable to me. The point of view is very masculine and the drama is built around really heightened moments."
As part of her research, Reichardt read diaries of women who underwent the hardships of the journey, which she said tended to start off full of romantic visions of a prosperous future before dealing increasingly with the mundanity of life on the trail.
"When you read the diaries of the women who made the journey west, the point of view is so completely different and it's really about labor and space and stillness.
"My challenge was to figure out how ... I could show that point of view from the people on the journey who don't get a vote, whether it be the Indian, or the kid, or the women."
In Meek's Cutoff, the travellers are set against vast, rugged landscapes, and the drama comes from the growing fear of running out of food and water, or of imminent attack, rather than from dramatic gunbattles.
Some critics in Venice praised the understated style of the film and the way it tackled themes of trust, leadership, faith and power, while others found it too slow.
In the movie, three families become increasingly desperate as Meek's assurances of safe passage repeatedly turn to dust.
When they chance upon and capture a lone native American they turn to him to save them from the threat of death, but it is far from clear what his true intentions are.
Reichardt said it was a challenge to portray a native American character without repeating cliches laid out by Hollywood for so many decades.
"It's a tricky thing," she said. "As soon as you are putting a native American in front of a blue sky with a bare chest, with beads on, you start to have a heart attack."
Among the cast is Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams, who appeared in Reichardt's previous picture "Wendy and Lucy." The Indian was played by Rod Rondeaux and Meek by Bruce Greenwood.