Along the way they encounter and take captive a Native American man--unarmed, speaking a language none of them understand, which leaves them free to speculate about his motives--will he take them to water, lead them back to a larger band from his tribe, lead them on a suicide march. Or maybe he's as lost as they are. The encounter between settlers and the indigenous people starts with nearly complete incomprehension on both sides. Understanding derives from rudimentary gestures of interpersonal power--Michelle Williams' character helps their captive so he'll owe her something, and it forms the basis for a sliver of a connection between them that in the end dominates the group in which people otherwise fail to gain credibility with each other.
In the sermon in church last weekend my minister talked about moral and spiritual space. Space looms large in Meek's Cutoff. The spaces are open, dry, with the most minimal ground-hugging vegetation in a dormant state. The characters wander through it. The space itself threatens to overwhelm them and destroy them, putting too much distance between them and water, giving them no guideposts to lead their way. This space becomes a moral crucible, breaking them down but on the other side they don't build a new sense of direction in a moral universe, but just seem defeated. After a process of trying to sort out reality and truth from misperception and illusion, the characters resign themselves to not reaching truth or insight, just a political accommodation and a need to plow ahead in some direction. The movie ends without resolving what appears to be the main drama, whether they find water. In the end it doesn't matter, because of the moral space they've been through. The people who will or will not reach the Willamette Valley have been damaged by thsi time in the desert. They've shed so much, such as the expectation of comfort and connection as well as the fundamental idea that what matters is to arrive at a right decision.
I haven't seen Kelly Reichardt's earlier films, which were set in the more contemporary Northwest. I wish I had seen them, because it looks like she is making a more sustained argument about the moral character of the society that emerged from the frontier experience. Rather than ennoble the people who went through it and form the basis for an almost utopian society, the Frontier Experience damaged Americans, created trauma that had physical, epistemological, and moral dimensions. The frontier on some level defeated people, who today wander through a different kind of desolate landscape, where the economy threatens more than beckons and social connections break down.