Based on a true story, the film portrays a group of three pioneer families on the Oregon Trail who follow Stephen Meek, a frontier guide who claims to know a shortcut (Meeks Cutoff) but has gotten them lost.
This film provides examples of:
- Bilingual Bonus: Much of the film relies on the ambiguity of the Cayuse man's intentions. His monologues are left untranslated, but someone who knows downriver Nez Perce will find out the secret: The man does intend to lead them to water. He's angry at Meek for being a fur trapper and threatens him. In idle moments, he wonders who his captors are and whether they even exist, calling them "dream people." When he arrives at the valley, he recites a legend about the discovery of horses.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: The story is told from a feminist perspective, showing how the women are left alone while the men confer among themselves what to do, leaving their wives out of the decision-making process. However, the women are never shown to be any wiser than the men - they're all equally lost in a country they don't know.
- Injun Country: The pioneers enter Indian territory, though which tribe is unclear to them. They spend much of their time worrying that they'll be attacked. They encounter only a single Native American who has no weapons or supplies. A few lithographs indicate that some Native Americans have been in the area.
- Leave the Camera Running: The film includes very lengthy takes where not much happens. The very first shot is an extended, dialogue-free shot of the pioneers carrying things across a river.
- No Name Given: The Native American man is never named, and the pioneers never refer to him as anything specific. He's simply called the Cayuse in the script.
- No Ending: The film ends before we find out whether the pioneers found civilization and where the Cayuse man was taking them.
- Riddle for the Ages: What was the Native American saying? Where was he taking them? The former, at least, is answered if you understand downriver Nez Perce, and at least hints at an answer to the latter: he's probably taking them to safety.
- Shown Their Work: Some details are taken straight from the real expedition:
- The shot of Thomas scrawling graffiti into the tree is taken from a real artifact recovered from the trail.
- Jimmy recovering a gold nugget and claiming to have found enough to fill a bucket with them is based on a real legend surrounding the trip, the Lost Blue Bucket Mine.
- The pioneers' arguments about which direction to take after hitting water and refusing to take Meek's advice all happened.
- The pioneers did exchange a blanket to a Native American for help in guiding them to water.
- Silence Is Golden: There is very little dialogue in the film, and there are long stretches of silence, with only the only sound being the buzzing of insects and squeaking of wagon wheels.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There are a number of specific details that the film includes of the real Meeks Cutoff expedition, but most of it is invented for the film. The real wagon train was 200 wagons instead of three, Meek was accompanied by his wife rather than being a bachelor who clashed with the women in the party, and Meek hired the Indian guide rather than captured him.
- The Western: A revisionist western with a feminist perspective. Set in the American frontier in 1845, during the early stages of the Oregon Trail.