Pioneering on the Edge of Sanity
Three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) have gone crazy living on the hard scrabble prairie of the Nebraska territory. They have left the comforts of home to scratch what little comfort they can at the edge of civilization...and sanity. One of the women is the wife of Vester Belknap (William Fichtner) and the local church led by Reverend Alfred Dowd (John Lithgow) offers help in the form of a shelter led by a brother minister, but Belknap will not take time away from his farm and daughters.
So, matronly Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), unmarried and and old-maidish (in her 20's by the time's prejudices) and as capable as most of the men of the community volunteers and picks up a barred wagon to transport the women in a rolling asylum on a journey that is treacherous even under the best of conditions (as we understand Westerns, it's a wonder anybody made it out west before the establishment of Route 66) and the best of health.
It is a daunting task—one that only the desperate would sign on to. Fortunately, she finds that desperate man. George Briggs (played by director Tommy Lee Jones) has been strung up for squatting in another settler's house (while that settler, who earlier rejected Mary Bee's proposition of marriage, goes back east to find a wife). Some local vigilantes have left him hanging, literally, sitting on his horse, leaving it to the horse to get hungry or bored, and by moving away, hanging the man. Mary Bee finds him and, realizing her superior bargaining position, secures his services in exchange for his life.
Over dinner, she tells him that his job will be as ferryman to a rolling asylum. Briggs soberly considers the proposition and refuses the offer. Mary Bee, reminding him of his previous working position as potential dead weight, tells him he is a man of low character and promises a salary. "Alright," Briggs reconsiders. "I'll help you tend to your cuckoo clocks."
Jones has made two features (apart from two films for television), both Westerns. This one is based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, author of "The Shootist," and resurrector of obsolete verbiage (or more accurately, "nouniage"), and this one has the lean look of more recent Westerns (like Meek's Cutoff) that have been less concerned with civilization and nation-building, as with the spare nature and alone-ness of the settler experience. The plains are empty. The sky, big, and the cities—if you can call them that—are single-story clapboard sitting in the dust, ready to be blown away by a sizable gust. Settlers' homes run the gamut of building material—wood when available, or dug into a cliff-side if convenient. Mary Bee's is the most put-together, indicating her competency or her powers of persuasion. She is determined to bring civilization with her, even if the territory proves unyielding. But, once out of her house and on the trail, she begins to see that under the circumstances, civilization will break down, sometimes in horrifying way. And anyone is susceptible.
|The residence of Mary Bee Cuddy
How this relates to manifest destiny and the gravitation to a deity is subject to interpretation...or prejudices, but the gist is we've all got our skeletons rattling around in our closets and bats in our belfries and one can travel to the farthest reaches of sanity...but (to quote that other buckaroo..Banzai) "no matter where you go...there you are."