Perhaps if I had read the multi-award winning novel by Glendon Swartout first, I might have a clue about the back-story and the drama of this tale, but I saw "Film by Tommy Lee Jones, starring Tommy Lee Jones", and decided to rent it on my Comcast Pay-Per-View.
To the movie's credit, the performances by Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones are outstanding, reminding me, frankly, of the characters from the Oscar-winning 1969 film True Grit and their depictions by Kim Darby and John Wayne. But True Grit didn't hide anything from the viewer; you didn't need to have read the novel by Charles Portis to fathom the motivations and philosophies of the main characters.
Still... Two days and multiple viewings later, I cannot answer three simple questions about the film.
Warning: the following contains spoilers. Don't read onward if you have neither seen the film nor read the book.
What is a "homesman"? Search the term online, and all you'll find is a series of references to the movie or the novel. The description of the novel at Amazon provides the only clue I've found: "...women whose hearts and minds were broken by a life of bitter hardship. A “homesman” must be found to escort a handful of them back East to a sanitarium."
Was this such a frequent need for pioneers that a name was created for the task? The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains includes an article by Nancy B. Johnson that tells us this conception of the American pioneer woman as mentally fragile is a fiction:
... the image of mad pioneer women has been handed down from generation to generation, perpetuating the notion that a large segment of women failed to endure the hardships of the Great Plains settlement experience and were driven insane. ... In Nebraska the 1880 population was 452,402, and 450 of them were recorded as insane. One half of those were women.What happened to these three women that was so harrowing, they could not encompass it and keep their sanity? Part of the baffling nature of the movie is process, and part is content. For one thing, we don't see the back-story for the three "crazy" women as a sequence, or in chronological order. Instead, they've chosen to dole out little flash-backs of horror throughout the film.
So we see one woman drop her living child into the outhouse after we learn that she was unhinged by the death of three previous children from diptheria. We meet another as a teeth-snapping vicious harridan after we see her "loving" husband cart her dead mother out into the snow, and then later singing with that same mother, as she burns her palm in a candle flame. (Obviously, her mental issues predated the mother's death.) I never did figure out the third woman's problem; it seemed to have something to do with dead horses.
Why, after having taken her unusual path in life, and succeeded at it, does Mary Bee Cuddy snap? The first time I watched the film, I was thinking, here is a sturdy pioneer woman of sound mind and firm purpose, who doesn't even need a man to help her stay sane (though she claims to need "real music" for it). She seems to want to be married, but not to require it.
I was, therefore, shocked when she turned about-face, proposing first marriage, and then sex, to the foul-mouthed drifter Frank Briggs. When she snapped after that, it was almost a relief. Ah! That's why she did the one-eighty, she was already going insane. I just don't know why.
And maybe that's the point of the story: people snap because they do, because sometimes killing yourself, physically or mentally, is more tolerable than going on.
Finally, does Frank Briggs not know any other song? Why does he sing this one when he does? This was less of a question than an observation. I thought this was the one crowning touch to a realistic portrayal of the drifting through life Tommy Lee Jones character. Frank Briggs, except for a few moments near the end of the movie, is a wholly integrated person. He is exactly what he is, no more, and certainly no less. This is the kind of man who would move into a vacant homestead, slaughter the sheep and eat them in his long johns, yet patiently cart an atonic woman into the brush to pee.
I guess I'll go watch it again while I still have some viewing time left on my dime. Maybe the penny will drop for me now that I've got all this off my chest.