Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 2 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 5; Language ; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (0-5): 4.5
My days are past, my plans are broken off,
the desires of my heart.
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
This is one of the most unusual Western films you are likely to see because it focuses upon a woman rather than a two-fisted gunslinger. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a 31-year-old single woman intent on building a viable farm in pre-Civil War Nebraska Territory. She had been a teacher back in New York and had come west seeking better opportunities. A solitary hard worker, she is way past the usual age of marriage, so she invites a single neighbor to dinner in order to propose marriage to him. Her reasons are strictly practical—no romance at all—but he turns her down, telling her, “You’re too bossy.”
Near the village, which boasts no more than 8 to 10 buildings rising from the vast prairie, three wives have broken under the terrible pressures of frontier living. One is a mother of a grown-up wife who keeps sweeping the floor of their small house, even though it has a dirt floor. The second woman marches out of her mud-brick hut and tosses her baby into the pit of the outhouse. Another one, whose three daughters have died of diphtheria, clings to a rag doll, heedless of all those around her.
At church the Rev. Dowd (John Lithgow) asks for volunteers to carry out a plan he has developed. He needs someone to be a “Homesman” to take the three women back to Iowa where a Methodist minister’s wife (Meryl Streep) has agreed to take them in before sending them back East for a doctor’s care. After the men all provide valid excuses, Mary Bee volunteers, sweeping aside an objection that she is a woman by pointing out she can ride, shoot, and work as well as any man. The others agree, and the minister accepts her offer.
The town blacksmith provides her a heavy-spring wagon, atop of which is a large box with barred windows and a door that can be locked from the outside. She adds a helper in the person of George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), whom she comes across while he is perched precariously on his horse beneath a large tree. His hands are tied behind his back, and the rope around his neck is attached to a tree branch. A group of farmers, angry that he was jumping a claim, had left him there to die. Begging for release, he agrees to help her transport the three women across the dangerous prairie to Iowa. She promises him $300 upon completion of the journey.
It is well that Mary Bee takes him on. They encounter a band of Indians that could have proved her undoing. Also, when one of the women runs off, George finds her in the clutches of a wagon train guide who does not care about her mental condition as long as she “can spread her legs.” During the every day episodes of setting up camp and dealing with the women the crude George stands as quite a contrast to the tough but pious Mary Bee. He could care less about the women, but she treats them with all the kindness one would expect from a person of compassionate faith.
This contrast between the two leaders we see when the little party comes upon a grave that has been despoiled. Mary Bee jumps down to pick up the fallen headstone—it is an end of a wooden bed into which the name and date of the deceased has been carved. Using a shovel, she begins to smooth out the dirt. Almost sneering at her efforts, George moves on with the wagon full of women. Much later, having restored the grave site, Mary Bee mounts her horse to catch up with the wagon. Darkness falls, and later she slumps over, falling asleep in the saddle. When she awakens the next morning she discovers that the horse has traveled in a wide circle. They are back at the grave site. Much later she at last rejoins the group. About all George can say is to complain that she lost the shovel.
The following events reveal the desperation of the lonely woman. She proposes marriage to the slovenly George, and as before, is rejected. But he does consent to another request late in the night when, naked, she joins him beneath his buffalo hide cover. Then sometime in the night, she does something that will change their lives forever. The grizzled George certainly is changed, as we see in the series of events that follow.
This is the 4th film directed by Tommy Lee Jones, all but one being a Western. The picture it gives us of frontier life is devoid of all the glamor and the thrills of the typical Hollywood Western. Hillary Swank bravely eschews the usual glamour-enhancing studio makeup, preferring to actually look the part of a woman so plain that no man is attracted to her. What her character does in the dead of night is jolting, her act turning the film into a parable not about her but about the effect that a good person can have upon another. Her light might not have shone for long, but it did have an effect on a man very much in the dark—until he rode with her and three wretched women who also benefited from her light.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Jan. 2015 issue of Visual Parables. Go to the Store to see how you can subscribe.