Regular readers know of my love for Erma’s Desire. The sculpture sits near Grand Island, Nebraska (on the Great Platte River Road). GI is about 50 miles (by car) from Loup City, Nebraska. This splendid piece of art abstractly depicts the desire and despair of pioneer women in the Nebraska Territory.
Last night, Joan and I paid 99 cents to watch the The Homesman on Apple TV. The Homesman premiered on May 18, 2014, in competition at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. A limited release in the United States followed.
This is an amazing movie about what it was like for women residing in the Nebraska Territory in the 1850s. It brings Erma’s Desire to life.
Spoiler alert: Here is a detailed description of this beautifully bleak story:
Mary Bee Cuddy [Hilary Swank] is a 31-year-old spinster from New York, a former teacher who journeyed to the Midwest for more opportunity. She is an active member of the small farming community she now calls home in Loup City, Nebraska, and has significant financial prospects and sizable land ownership. Though seemingly strong and independent, inside she is suffering from depression from isolation, and after being rejected by potential husbands for being too “plain”. She proposes to a man named Bob Giffen and sings to him on her makeshift piano, and he turns her down.
After a harsh winter, three young women—Arabella Sours, Theoline Belknapp, and Gro Svendsen—begin to show signs of insanity due to the hardships they faced. One lost her children to diphtheria, one killed her own child, and one was raped and suffers a breakdown after her mother dies. Reverend Dowd [John Lithgow] calls upon one of their husbands to escort the women eastward to a church in Hebron, Iowa that cares for the mentally ill. Unsatisfied with any of the men’s potential, Mary Bee volunteers for the task alone, and Dowd reluctantly agrees.
Cuddy encounters George Briggs [Tommy Lee Jones], a claim jumper, who was about to be lynched for using another man’s land as his own. Sniveling and begging to be helped, Briggs appeals to Cuddy for help. She frees him in return for his help escorting the women. He immediately casts doubt on the job and tells her that he considers himself free to leave at any time. Cuddy uses the promise of $300 waiting for him at their destination to persuade him to remain with her as they make the journey. Briggs’ experience comes in handy when fending off hostile Indians and when one of the women wanders off and is taken in by a wandering man. However, when they discover a desecrated grave of an eleven-year-old girl, Cuddy wants to stop and restore the grave, while Briggs vows to push on. Cuddy agrees to catch up with him, and after restoring the grave sets out on horseback. Riding all night, she eventually wakes and discovers that her horse has returned her to the grave.
Finally catching up to Briggs, Cuddy tells him that they make a great team and suggests that they marry. Briggs, like all the previous men, rejects Cuddy on the grounds of her looks and bossy nature, but when a naked Cuddy propositions him later that night, he agrees and the two have sex. The next morning, Briggs finds that Cuddy has committed suicide. Briggs buries her body and lashes out in anger at Sours, Belknapp, and Svendsen. Discovering that Cuddy had his money with her the entire time, Briggs takes a horse and leaves the three women behind to their own devices. But when the trio follow him on foot, one of them almost drowning in the river crossing, he returns and pledges to care for them until Iowa.
Briggs seeks food and shelter at a hotel belonging to Aloysius Duffy [James Spader], who informs him that they have no rooms available for them despite the hotel being completely empty. Angry and bitter after all his hardship, Briggs lashes out at Duffy, whose men and Briggs threaten each other with guns. Briggs leaves, but then returns that night alone on horseback. He sends away the young cook, instructing her not to look back. He uses the wall lamps to set the hotel on fire, and then shoots Duffy in the foot when he tries to get downstairs to escape. Briggs takes the roasted pig to feed himself and the ladies, and exits the hotel leaving all inside to be burned alive.
Briggs finally reaches Iowa, passing the women into the care of Altha Carter [Meryl Streep] the wife of a church reverend. He informs her of Cuddy’s death but does not disclose the true cause. He then suggests marriage to young Tabitha Hutchinson after feeling guilty about not taking Mary Bee’s proposal, but then decides against it and leaves the young girl be. Instead, he makes a headstone for Cuddy’s grave and boards a barge as he departs. He meets a group of musicians and begins taunting the men on the far bank as he drunkenly dances and fires his weapons, and as the ferry departs, one of the workers kicks Mary Bee’s headstone into the river.
This raw and revealing film brutally and beautifully describes the desire and despair of pioneer women in the Nebraska Territory. It took my breath away.