The Homesman: Pioneer Women Surviving Prairie Fever On The Bleak Frontier


Much of the depravity, chaos and rage lying just beneath the iconic myth of the Wild West and exhibited as a male manifestation – is in large part attributed to post-Confederacy PTSD among veterans back then. Connected to the sound defeat and enormous devastation visited upon the South, that gave rise to dangerously disgruntled drifters known euphemistically as cowboys.

But there was another rarely spoken about Manifest Destiny madness out on the plains, and equally afflicting men and women due to the harsh living conditions and alienating isolation – Prairie Fever. Though an affliction characterized more in terms of gender, by deeply depressed women and violent men.

And without actually attributing that very real and far from uncommon ordeal among those 19th century heartland settlers, The Homeseman illuminates that state of mind with an astonishing poetic eloquence in portraying the descent into madness of three pioneer women on the Nebraska plains.

Directed, co-written, produced and starring Tommy Lee Jones and co-produced by Luc Besson, this stunning, very differently depicted, and vividly conceived journey into the mythic American past likewise boasts a strikingly impressive ensemble cast. Counting in addition to Jones as the title character in question, Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, William Fichtner, Grace Gummer, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Miranda Otto, Jesse Plemons, James Spader and Hailee Steinfeld.

Not exactly a feminist western but powerfully evoking the lives of these scarred and thwarted women nevertheless, The Homesman follows the fate of three young wives (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) broken by mental illness (involving sexual assault, post-partum depression infanticide, grieving the death of children from a diptheria epidemic, and attempted female implement suicide by darning needle). And being escorted back East, where a concerned church has offered to care for them. The problem is that there are no local men, not even their own husbands, willing to take them by covered wagon on that long and dangerous journey.

Volunteering instead is Mary Bee (Swank), a solitary, pious farmer who courageously works her own land. A member of the town’s Ladies Aid Society, Mary is also a lonely woman that all the men around her refuse to marry. Deemed just too ‘plain as an old tin pail’ Mary Bee is actually not at all physically unappealing. But her toughness, resilience and independent spirit get her labeled as simply too bossy for wedlock. And a pariah within the patriarchal kooky courtship culture on the frontier, despite her persistent proposals of marriage to men.

And self-determined but not impractical, Mary Bee realizes she’d have difficulty transporting these very needy and out of control women alone. So happening upon nomadic army deserter George Briggs (Jones) hitched up to a tree for lynching by an angry mob, Mary Bee saves him in return for his reluctant pledge to assist her on the journey.

The relationship that develops between Mary Bee and Briggs, along with the unusual bonding of these tortured and helpless women, unfolds within a captivating fusion of bleak tragedy, horror, delicate grace and devilishly twisted, dark humor. Along with a perplexing landscape and its oblivious history encircling the lives of surrounding enraged Native Americans and shackled trafficked slaves alike.

And a remarkable performance from Tommy Lee Jones’ recklessly rowdy anti-hero never ceases to surprise and amaze. With a begrudgingly kind heart, that is delicately transformative and magnificently nuanced.

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.