The cruel theology of The Homesman

Last year, a very well-reviewed but little known movie was released into theaters.  Titled The Homesman and set in 1855, it refers to a man hired to escort women home “back east” who had failed to adapt to frontier life in the Nebraska Territory.  In this case, three married women have been driven stark mad by the endless toil and horrifying privations, physical and mental, of life on the prairie.  Each suffered precipitating events of peculiar horror: one mother lost her three young children to diphtheria, while another is undone by a loveless marriage, the death of her elderly mother, and the sheer bleakness of the endless winter wastes.  A third mother commits an unspeakable act and loses her reason as a result.  The women all suffer from what we would today call severe PTSD, appear dissociated from reality, and are essentially mute.

Into this crisis steps 31-year-old Mary Bee Cuddy, played by Hilary Swank, a pioneer spinster of extreme resilience and strength, who volunteers to be the “homesman” who guides the women home to Iowa, where a kindly pastor’s wife will agree to take them in until their relatives can properly care for them.  Before leaving she comes across George Briggs (played by Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed the movie), a down-and-out claim jumper set to be executed for his crime, and she frees him in exchange for his promise to accompany her (and $300) to Iowa with the three lunatics in a covered wagon.  The irascible Briggs and the pious Mary Bee Cuddy make an odd couple, of course, as they brave all manner of danger and sacrifice in their long road to the Missouri River, Iowa, and salvation.  But the film shies away from easy grace and redemption. 

Indeed, The Homesman shies away from grace and redemption, period.  The road across the trackless prairie is well predicted by the wizened George Briggs:

You're gonna meet three kinds of people out here. You're gonna meet wagon trains that don't want to see crazy people. You're gonna meet freighters who will surely rape you. And you're gonna meet Indians who will kill you, and then rape you after they kill me.

But the high-minded Mary Bee, while genuinely frightened, is not deterred, because her high conscience and religious certitude compel her to push on with her errand of mercy.  She has to cajole Briggs, who is unimpressed with her efforts:

Mary Bee Cuddy: If you lied to me, and intend on abandoning your responsibility, then you are a man of low character, more disgusting pig than honorable man.

George Briggs: Thank you for the kind words, sister. You're no prize yourself. You're plain as an old tin pail and you're bossy.

But the film abandons the worn cinematic tropes in which the unlikely couple is forced by circumstance to human understanding and even love.  There are many human attempts at redemption by the characters, but every one ends in heartbreak and the death of hope.  The God to whom Mary Bee Cuddy constantly prays aloud is a cruel god, if he exists at all.

A truly Christian film is usually intended to show, at least by implication, the theodicy of a benevolent God who loves His people, hears their prayers, and, despite all human hardship and sacrifice, demonstrates the possibility of moral redemption.  Mary Bee Cuddy tells Briggs as much by naming one of the horses “Redemption” and reminding Briggs:

Perhaps you don't realize what a grand thing you're doing taking these poor, helpless women home. If you don't, I assure you, I do. This might be the finest, most generous act of your life.

But in the case of The Homesman, nothing is redeemed, and the result is rather like a horror film, in which no escape or redemption is possible. 

First, and most shockingly, the virtuous Mary Bee, after being turned down yet again for marriage after proposing to Briggs himself, realizes she is too old, plain, and “bossy” to ever be married.  In despair, she hangs herself on the journey east.  Briggs is sickened and angry; her suicide causes him to ride off and abandon the three crazy women.  But they follow him, and one falls into the river, nearly drowning, and Briggs’s conscience pricks him into saving her.  The party comes upon a new hotel, empty except for the staff, which is eagerly awaiting the arrival of rich investors to show it to.  When the smarmy hotelier callously turns the desperately hungry quartet away, Briggs moves on, shouting back at them, "Your mothers and your sisters and your wives and your daughters will curse your broke-dick souls!"

He returns later that night to steal the food on the table for the women – perhaps a virtuous act under the circumstances, but he goes overboard and, in a rage, burns the whole hotel down with its staff.  Finally arriving in the Iowa town, he meets the wife of the pastor, played by Meryl Streep, and turns over his sacred charges to her. 

In town, Briggs initially seems like a changed man, inspired by the example of the deceased Mary Bee; he buys a shoeless girl (played by Haile Steinfeld) a new pair and tells her that she could be told of and fulfill Mary Bee’s legacy:

Tabitha Hutchinson: Who is Mary Bee Cuddy?

George Briggs: Mary Bee Cuddy was as fine a woman as ever walked. You'll never know her.

Tabitha Hutchinson: Well then, so what?

George Briggs: Oh. You are the living breathing reason she will never be lost. That's what I'm talkin'.

Tabitha Hutchinson: You're a strange man.

George Briggs: I expect I am. Why don't we marry?

Tabitha Hutchinson: Maybe.

He also pays for a fine gravestone cut for his dead heroine and plans on giving her a proper burial.  But in the end, after discovering that his coveted $300.00 is worthless paper printed from an out-of-business wildcat bank, Briggs himself despairs and gives up the prospect of a virtuous, settled life with anyone.  Penniless, he gets drunk and boards a keelboat, intending on heading out West again, an atomized loner separated from society.  A passenger kicks the gravestone into the river, unnoticed and unwanted, as Briggs dances a frenzied jig on the keelboat deck.

To director Tommy Lee Jones, all human effort, no matter how nobly undertaken, eventually comes to nothing.  It is either abandoned or found to be unrewarded by a strangely indifferent god who consents only to the permanency of disease, wild Indians, vast expanses of nothingness, winter darkness, and the short-lived mercy of mankind.

Christopher S. Carson writes from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Last year, a very well-reviewed but little known movie was released into theaters.  Titled The Homesman and set in 1855, it refers to a man hired to escort women home “back east” who had failed to adapt to frontier life in the Nebraska Territory.  In this case, three married women have been driven stark mad by the endless toil and horrifying privations, physical and mental, of life on the prairie.  Each suffered precipitating events of peculiar horror: one mother lost her three young children to diphtheria, while another is undone by a loveless marriage, the death of her elderly mother, and the sheer bleakness of the endless winter wastes.  A third mother commits an unspeakable act and loses her reason as a result.  The women all suffer from what we would today call severe PTSD, appear dissociated from reality, and are essentially mute.

Into this crisis steps 31-year-old Mary Bee Cuddy, played by Hilary Swank, a pioneer spinster of extreme resilience and strength, who volunteers to be the “homesman” who guides the women home to Iowa, where a kindly pastor’s wife will agree to take them in until their relatives can properly care for them.  Before leaving she comes across George Briggs (played by Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed the movie), a down-and-out claim jumper set to be executed for his crime, and she frees him in exchange for his promise to accompany her (and $300) to Iowa with the three lunatics in a covered wagon.  The irascible Briggs and the pious Mary Bee Cuddy make an odd couple, of course, as they brave all manner of danger and sacrifice in their long road to the Missouri River, Iowa, and salvation.  But the film shies away from easy grace and redemption. 

Indeed, The Homesman shies away from grace and redemption, period.  The road across the trackless prairie is well predicted by the wizened George Briggs:

You're gonna meet three kinds of people out here. You're gonna meet wagon trains that don't want to see crazy people. You're gonna meet freighters who will surely rape you. And you're gonna meet Indians who will kill you, and then rape you after they kill me.

But the high-minded Mary Bee, while genuinely frightened, is not deterred, because her high conscience and religious certitude compel her to push on with her errand of mercy.  She has to cajole Briggs, who is unimpressed with her efforts:

Mary Bee Cuddy: If you lied to me, and intend on abandoning your responsibility, then you are a man of low character, more disgusting pig than honorable man.

George Briggs: Thank you for the kind words, sister. You're no prize yourself. You're plain as an old tin pail and you're bossy.

But the film abandons the worn cinematic tropes in which the unlikely couple is forced by circumstance to human understanding and even love.  There are many human attempts at redemption by the characters, but every one ends in heartbreak and the death of hope.  The God to whom Mary Bee Cuddy constantly prays aloud is a cruel god, if he exists at all.

A truly Christian film is usually intended to show, at least by implication, the theodicy of a benevolent God who loves His people, hears their prayers, and, despite all human hardship and sacrifice, demonstrates the possibility of moral redemption.  Mary Bee Cuddy tells Briggs as much by naming one of the horses “Redemption” and reminding Briggs:

Perhaps you don't realize what a grand thing you're doing taking these poor, helpless women home. If you don't, I assure you, I do. This might be the finest, most generous act of your life.

But in the case of The Homesman, nothing is redeemed, and the result is rather like a horror film, in which no escape or redemption is possible. 

First, and most shockingly, the virtuous Mary Bee, after being turned down yet again for marriage after proposing to Briggs himself, realizes she is too old, plain, and “bossy” to ever be married.  In despair, she hangs herself on the journey east.  Briggs is sickened and angry; her suicide causes him to ride off and abandon the three crazy women.  But they follow him, and one falls into the river, nearly drowning, and Briggs’s conscience pricks him into saving her.  The party comes upon a new hotel, empty except for the staff, which is eagerly awaiting the arrival of rich investors to show it to.  When the smarmy hotelier callously turns the desperately hungry quartet away, Briggs moves on, shouting back at them, "Your mothers and your sisters and your wives and your daughters will curse your broke-dick souls!"

He returns later that night to steal the food on the table for the women – perhaps a virtuous act under the circumstances, but he goes overboard and, in a rage, burns the whole hotel down with its staff.  Finally arriving in the Iowa town, he meets the wife of the pastor, played by Meryl Streep, and turns over his sacred charges to her. 

In town, Briggs initially seems like a changed man, inspired by the example of the deceased Mary Bee; he buys a shoeless girl (played by Haile Steinfeld) a new pair and tells her that she could be told of and fulfill Mary Bee’s legacy:

Tabitha Hutchinson: Who is Mary Bee Cuddy?

George Briggs: Mary Bee Cuddy was as fine a woman as ever walked. You'll never know her.

Tabitha Hutchinson: Well then, so what?

George Briggs: Oh. You are the living breathing reason she will never be lost. That's what I'm talkin'.

Tabitha Hutchinson: You're a strange man.

George Briggs: I expect I am. Why don't we marry?

Tabitha Hutchinson: Maybe.

He also pays for a fine gravestone cut for his dead heroine and plans on giving her a proper burial.  But in the end, after discovering that his coveted $300.00 is worthless paper printed from an out-of-business wildcat bank, Briggs himself despairs and gives up the prospect of a virtuous, settled life with anyone.  Penniless, he gets drunk and boards a keelboat, intending on heading out West again, an atomized loner separated from society.  A passenger kicks the gravestone into the river, unnoticed and unwanted, as Briggs dances a frenzied jig on the keelboat deck.

To director Tommy Lee Jones, all human effort, no matter how nobly undertaken, eventually comes to nothing.  It is either abandoned or found to be unrewarded by a strangely indifferent god who consents only to the permanency of disease, wild Indians, vast expanses of nothingness, winter darkness, and the short-lived mercy of mankind.

Christopher S. Carson writes from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.