“The Homesman”: Mental Health Issues in the Old West

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones are getting kudos for their roles in the new female-centric Western called The Homesman, directed and co-written by Jones. The film, adapted from a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, is also getting some decent reviews.

The official description of the film:

When three women living on the edge of the American frontier are driven mad by harsh pioneer life, the task of saving them falls to the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). Transporting the women by covered wagon to Iowa, she soon realizes just how daunting the journey will be, and employs a low-life drifter, George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), to join her. The unlikely pair and the three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) head east, where a waiting minister and his wife (Meryl Streep) have offered to take the women in. But the group first must traverse the harsh Nebraska Territories marked by stark beauty, psychological peril and constant threat.

Other people met along the way include “an opportunistic cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson)…and an unctuous innkeeper (James Spader), unrealistically holding out for a better class of clientele than one usually finds on the lone prairie” (Pete Vonder Haar, Village Voice).

You can view the trailer below:

The Mental Health Issues

Peter Debruge, Variety, comments on attitudes toward mental health issues back then and now:

‘People like to talk about death and taxes, but when it comes to crazy, they stay hushed up,’ notes a townsperson in the hardscrabble Nebraska Territories where the seemingly linear but surprisingly unpredictable story begins. That amateur philosopher’s observation is as true today as it might have been in 1854, which means instead of rehashing the same stale Old West stories that have all but exhausted the genre, ‘The Homesman’…has the unique advantage of exploring a relatively overlooked chapter of America’s past.

Fiona Williams, sbs.com.au, about the film’s setup: “A town meeting is called to address a community mental health crisis, described euphemistically by the preacher (John Lithgow) as ‘some trouble amongst the women.’ A trio of females have succumbed to their darker instincts, driven mad by alienation, bad marriages, and the stockpiling corpses of their sick babies.”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “The three demented women include a catatonic, doll-clutching 19-year-old (Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer) banished by her husband after losing her baby; a violent schizophrenic (Miranda Otto) who threw her newborn infant down the hole of an outhouse; and a hysterical immigrant (Sonja Richter) who lost her mother in the snow and now spends her days screaming for an exorcism from the devil.”

Overall Reviews

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “Few will regret having seen ‘The Homesman,’ and yet it’s not exactly an enjoyable experience. The film occupies that peculiar space that many of us would prefer to believe doesn’t exist, a movie that’s worthy but often inert, by turns enriching and enervating: a good boring movie.”

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “‘The Homesman’ is both a captivating western and a meticulous, devastating feminist critique of the genre.”

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “A wrenching, relentless and anti-heroic western that stands among the year’s most powerful American films. Not everyone will like ‘The Homesman,’ but if you see it you won’t soon forget it.”

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