In The Homesman, the central human dilemma is how the various characters form, avoid or break attachments with others, a primal matter in even the most benign of circumstances, let alone in the rough 1850s Nebraska territory.

Caring too much for others brings misery, but not going along to get along also brings misery.

Do the characters play well with others? Most of the men certainly do not, and much of the film is about how women try to cope with or succumb to this harsh world.

Traditional westerns retell the gradual mythy victory of community over a raw and hostile land riven by outlaws and savages, a victory won primarily through strong-willed individuals who might save a town but who cannot comfortably settle there.

In the early moments of this film, the three women being transported to an insane asylum seem the only ones who cannot comport themselves acceptably. Their crimes include infanticide, sitting motionless rather than getting the farm work done, and disobeying their husbands.

They must be removed from their tenuous Nebraska community, and returned east to live in a madhouse. But as the film progresses, we see that the town itself, indeed the whole of the west, is a madhouse where the inmates run free.

We encounter many minor characters who fail to balance self-interest and community involvement, although some of the instances seem so minor that only when we add up all of the experiences do we see the systemic problem.

Most of the minor characters cannot play well together: a neighbor whom Mary Bee Cuddy wants to marry (for economic reasons) rejects her. One farmer refuses to participate in the lottery to see who must take the women eastward, and is called “unreliable.” Two old women at that drawing carp but refuse to join the trip. The timid minister lets a lone woman undertake the dangerous trip when he could do it. A husband has unwelcome sex with his wife the night before her removal, with her mother next to them in bed. A drifter wants one of the three insane women solely for sex. Pawnees look for victims. An entrepreneur hotelier refuses food to the starving travelers (a nice irony there).

So far, this film is the traditional epic journey, our two mismatched heroes encountering and overcoming threats. But we soon see that our two central characters are also too deeply flawed to live happy and balanced lives, and their flaws are variations of the central matter of how people get along with each other.

Mary Bee Cuddy begins as a model of churchy respectability, can-do pioneer skills and energy, and willingness to trust and help others. Any bachelor in this difficult territory would benefit mightily from forming a union (marital and business) with her. But this woman who so strongly believes in caring and sharing finally cannot survive abandonment and rejection. Her impulsive and Quixotic, not to mention Faulknerian, insistence on reburying a child who no longer exists even as a corpse (dug up by Indians and then eaten by wolves) nearly kills her. Fortunately the horse she is on is more charitable than most people.

Whose story is this?

Mary Bee Cuddy is not the central character. This film is George Briggs’s story, even if “George Briggs” is a casually invented alias to avoid being discovered by enemies or understood by Mary Bee Cuddy.

Briggs is the most independent character, and the only one to say it openly. He admits to having deserted the U.S. Army and a woman or two, and to undertaking the film’s difficult charitable task only for the money. At one point he abandons the three helpless women to their own devices in the middle of nowhere.

Briggs does not have a character arc. What might seem to start as a character arc flames out like the Challenger, and the end of the film shows him just as he started: reckless, nearly broke, his back to the darkness into which he is unthinkingly headed, dancing like a fool.

Before that end, Briggs does have occasional flare-ups of caring and traditional heroism in defense of others. He retrieves one of the insane women from a rape-minded drifter, he rescues one from drowning, and he resumes his task once the women show some bonding with him.

Oh, and he gallantly if reluctantly has sex with Mary Bee Cuddy when she pleads for it as a last (we soon discover) desperate effort for affirmation of her dignity and worthiness. She never understands why her own impulse to get along with and care for others is not reciprocated, however mechanically, and this dissonance cannot end well.

May Bee Cuddy

Cuddy is dismissed as “bossy,” which we might better understand as “not submissive,” and as “plain.” Her pain at being rejected by men for being “plain” is a grim counterpoint to the suffering endured by the three insane women for being attractive enough to have become wives.

There is nothing surprising about the withdrawal from personal interactions by any of these four women, given their experiences. We in the audience are all probably deeply relieved, for her sake, that her two proposals are rejected. To paraphrase an old saying: Men, you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.

Women in the film often pay dearly for caring about some people and for not pretending to care about others. One of the women driven to madness loved her mother and one loved her three children, and their deaths seem to have robbed the women of their last reason to continue to participate. Like Bartleby, they would prefer not to.

Hysterical leg paralysis, and other coping mechanisms

Every culture and era has its own notions of what constitutes a mental illness. Some mental health historians argue convincingly that each culture and era also has its own favored symptoms by which psychic distress can be made manifest. “Hysterical leg paralysis” afflicted an alarming number of women in the 19th-century, many in affluent marriages, and was perhaps a method of passive resistance some desperate women unconsciously employed in response to intolerable circumstances. These days, most of those women could simply call a divorce lawyer.

Travel therapy

We do not go to films to learn about mental illness or history, I hope, so The Houseman’s treatment gets a pass for subordinating reality to artistic purpose. The three insane women begin as hopeless 19th-century lunatics worthy of Bedlam, but their journey to therapy becomes a therapeutic journey.

For all of its physical discomforts and indignities, as the journey progresses the three women seem to begin to recover. They stop attacking each other, they act less catatonic, and they help each other in that mythic river rescue — the frame of the four figures helping each other ashore evokes a memorial frieze or 19th-century tableau. One woman saves Briggs from being murdered as he tries to save her from de facto sexual slavery.

The ironic and dark side of this nascent recovery is that they have become docile, they stay quiet, and they behave rather like heavily sedated Stepford wives, which is to say they begin to become the wives their husbands always wanted, not counting the grueling farm work.

The three women are now safe from violent husbands and marauding Indians, but despite the film’s reticence we all know what lies ahead for them in an 1850s insane asylum. Their partial recovery is not likely to continue, since the comfy parlor in the minister’s home is merely a way-station on their way to an asylum.

The film does not take us to the asylum. We last see the three women on the settee in the minister’s home, contentedly watching Briggs leave despite his professed worry that they had become too attached to him to not raise a fuss. This is another nice irony in the film, as the gruff loner seems a bit hurt that the three women can comfortably watch him go, and he is hurt that the minister’s wife brusquely dismisses him, flustered and excited as she is by his gift of the wagon and mules.

Briggs’ vague impulse to settle down back east is a momentary sentimentality, like his awkward attempts at conversation with a 16-year-old potential Cuddy surrogate, and his intention to provide a grave marker for Cuddy.

What is this film about?

Tommy Lee Jones has been criticized for making a film celebrating himself. “Director Jones should not have put actor Jones front and center in a movie that is purportedly about pioneer women.” (Claudia Puig, in USA Today)  Purported by people involved in making or marketing the film? Perhaps Claudia Puig forgot the film’s title.

In her defense, a Guardian interviewer’s descriptions of Jones also neatly fit Briggs: “[He] detests intrusion into what he considers his private sphere . . . He maintains opacity with legendary brusqueness – some say bullying – which has intimidated [people, one of whom called him] “monstrous.” [Someone said he] ‘scared the hell out of me’. Questions he dislikes can prompt walkouts or overturned furniture.”

Manifest Destiny? Really?

Jones told that interviewer that The Homesman was meant to question the concept of Manifest Destiny.

“It’s about people living on the cutting edge of what is sometimes called manifest destiny. What is the price we pay for believing that God meant for us to own everything between Massachusetts and California? People still believe it, and schoolchildren are still taught that there is almost a divine right for the United States to hold the land that it does today.”

That puzzles me, in part because none of the characters seem to think they are fulfilling divine intention, and in part because native Americans are shown as marauding thieves, not as some counterweight to an argument that Americans rightly deserved all of the land.

If the good citizens of the town are driven to action by a vast idea, it is not Manifest Destiny but what they would probably describe as Christian charity, doing unto others, caring for the least of these. That, and the more pragmatic understanding that keeping their society functioning requires exiling the three deranged women.

A film questioning Manifest Destiny might be expected to show that before the Indians stole from Americans, Americans stole land from Indians. Such a film might be expected to suggest that Indians were not all savages, but the Indians in The Homesman are those of the traditional 1950s western, a threat against nice civilized white folks.

Is the film about the 19th-century struggle to establish order and civilization in lawless pioneer territory? I do not think so, since the town already has a simple form of democratic decision making, an informal system of co-operative farming, established property lines, a church, and a bank.

So maybe it is about pioneer women

The only overt political element I see in The Homesman is the deplorable status of women, and that is enough. This is a film set in the west, but not primarily about the west.

The Homesman drives home a consistent observation about human nature regardless of time or place: the difficulties individuals have of getting beyond superficial self interest when self-interest really requires involvement in community, the ways in which self-interest can be self-destructive.

Happily for audiences, that grim idea is delivered by an engaging story with interesting characters in an interesting landscape.


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