Mary Bee is a God-fearing woman who has a homestead as neat as a pin, money in the bank and plans for the future. What she lacks is a companion to share all of this, but when she openly courts her neighbour, he turns her proposal down because: “You’re plain as a pail and you’re bossy”. This bossy and single woman volunteers to take her three demented neighbours back to more civilised climes when the men are far from willing to step up. Coming across Griggs with a noose around his neck, she makes a deal: that she cut him loose in exchange for his company.
However, en route Mary Bee’s strength slowly and inexorably begins to sap. She misses seeing trees and having music in her life, and at 31 she realises that her chances of marriage and children are waning. Jones depicts this slow decline with great delicacy. At one point we move away from the madwomen, one cradling her doll as a replacement child, and follow Mary Bee into the woods where she unravels her tapestry piano and plays: there is a fine line between make-believe and madness. We see further unravelling when she arrives at camp after getting lost. Clambering into the women’s wagon, she laughs as maniacally as any of her charges whilst cussing for the first time in her life.
Although set in Nebraska, the film was made in New Mexico, and the harsh and beautiful plains are very much a protagonist. We understand their allure but also appreciate their vastness and challenges. Although not all of the characters in the film are as good as Mary Bee, we appreciate their endurance and optimism. The production design also looks spot on, the homes and the women’s wagon in particular intelligently rendered. Lee has created a beautiful paean to these frontiers people, and to the women in particular.
The two central performances are strong, with Jones and Swank creating a believable and very real relationship between the two characters, and the three unfortunate women are also strong. Unfortunately, there are other great actors who make far too brief cameos, which seems a waste. Also, it is hard to believe that a man would turn down Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee. The fact that a 31-year-old would have all her teeth, let alone look like Swank, makes her seem like quite a catch. Yet while the film offers plenty of elements we have seen before – an obvious parallel is The Missing – it still manages to move and surprise us. A fine homage to those who dared try to tame the wild and brutal west.