In the opening scene of this spiritual film, we see a solitary figure wearing a bonnet and dress and walking slowly behind a plow pulled by two mules; above her, the big sky, and below her, the good earth. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is 31-year-old single woman who has built a solitary life as a hard-working farmer with a keen sense of moral good. She lives in the Nebraska Territory in 1854. After having her proposal of marriage turned down by a younger man who finds her too "bossy and plain," Mary volunteers for a mission of mercy.

Pioneer women faced wild extremes of weather, virulent diseases, the abuse and violence of husbands, battles with Indians and animals, the burdens of childcare, and the endless struggle against poverty and starvation. Some of them fought courageously and survived; others were driven into depression and mental illness by the hardships of frontier life.

Three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) in the community have gone around the bend: one wails and talks repeatedly about God's judgment; another threw her baby down an outhouse hole; and a third clings to a rag doll that represents her three children who died of diphtheria. The town preacher, Rev. Dowd (John Lithgow), has come up with a plan to have these unfortunate women taken back to Iowa where a Methodist minister's wife (Meryl Streep) will make sure they are looked after.

When no men are willing to take on the dangers and rigors of this expedition, Mary Bee says she will be the "homesman" transporting them. She heads off into the wilderness with the three mad women locked in a boxy wagon. By sheer luck, she rescues George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a claim jumping vagabond who is a few minutes away from choking to death as he sits on a horse with a noose around his neck. In exchange for saving his life, she elicits his vow to accompany her on the journey. Along the way, they square off against a band of Indians, a gunslinger, and very cold weather.

The Homesman is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout and its portrait of an overlooked slice of American history on the frontier. As director, star, and one of the three screenwriters, Tommy Lee Jones gives us a Western which brings us into the presence of the inexplicable promptings of the human heart. On their arduous trek, Mary Bee and Briggs are two outsiders thrown together by chance. She is a devout Christian who comes across as an angel gently caring for the three mad women. And as if that were not enough, Mary Bee puts her own life in jeopardy to bury the body of a child they happen upon in the deserted prairie. Her kindness and sincere faith begin to work wonders on the hard-drinking and hardened cowboy Briggs.

In one of our favorite movies Household Saints a character says: "You think you know how the game of life is going but you never do. At any moment God can deal you a wild card." The wild cards here are mysteries which confound reason and leave us feeling humbled by the profound complexities and paradoxes of life. In a poignant performance, Hilary Swank centers The Homesman and leaves us breathless in the face of her courage, vulnerability, and service of others. Mary Bee walks her talk as a Christian and enters a very small circle of screen characters to do so effectively.

Going Deeper

"It is one thing to see something remarkable appearing inexplicably in the world. It is quite another to see the world itself as remarkable and all of existence as inexplicable."
— James J. Carse in Breakfast at the Victory

The American Western movie is usually centered on the depiction of men and their guns, horses, violence, solitude, battles, animal sexuality, and distrust of community. This movie is different in that it concentrates on the challenges faced by women in the frontier milieu. Tommy Lee Jones's sensitive and poignant screen adaptation of Glendon Swarthout's novel joins three other films that have impressed us with their spiritual treatment of pioneer women.

True Grit is a Western narrated by 14-year-old Mattie Rosee (Hailee Steinfeld), a feisty, well-educated, determined, and wise beyond her years teenager. Her beloved father has been killed by one of his employees and she is in town to collect her dad's body and hire a lawman to bring the killer back for a trial and hanging.

In this creative and convincing adaptation of Charles Portis' novel, which was also the source of the 1969 movie True Grit starring John Wayne, writers and directors Joel Cohen and Ethan Coen put the emphasis on character and not conflict. It is unusual to see a Western dominated by the presence and elegant language of a smart girl. It is also rare to experience a cinematic probe of revenge which reveals its high cost in pain and loss. That is a spiritual message which goes against the grain in Western culture.

Meek's Cutoff is a slow-moving Western set in 1845 and revolving around a covered wagon train of three families traveling on the Oregon Trail for a new life in the Pacific Northwest. They are being led by an arrogant and rough mountain man named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who is used to having people submissively follow his orders.

The journey is further complicated when they capture a scout from the Cayuse tribe (Rod Rondeaux). Meek wants to kill him but some of the others think he must know the way to water. Leading the opposition to Meek is Emily (Michele Williams), the wife of Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton). When push comes to shove about the fate of the Native American, Emily proves to be a real leader. Her inner strength and reliance upon conscience surprise her husband and everyone else. Michelle Williams does an incredible job depicting this woman's dramatic spiritual transformation.

O Pioneers! is a screen adaptation of Willa Cather's novel set in Nebraska at the turn of the century. It was originally shown on television as part of the Hallmark Hall of Fame series. Jessica Lange plays Alexandra Bergson, a competent and courageous woman whose dying father leaves her control of his failing farm. Over the years through shrewd management and persistence, she prospers.

Alexandra has a mystical relationship with the land, a reverent approach she shares with a bare-footed hermit (Roberts Blossoms) who becomes her lifelong adviser and friend. Filming in Nebraska, producer and director Glenn Jordan makes the prairie an important character in the drama. This touching drama reveals one woman's loving relationship with the land and its manifold mysteries which speak to her soul.

The women in these four movies — Mary Bee, Mattie, Emily, and Alexandra — pay homage to and help us embrace the great and stirring mysteries of the heart, the paradoxes of the human adventure which cannot be explained easily, and the strangeness and beauty of the natural world.