There are a couple major settings in The Homesman, punctuated by long expanses of nothingness that defined America in 1850. Philip David Morton for Huffington Post writes,
“The desolate and unforgiving Nebraska territory is the stage and the characters are the disarmingly normal settlers whose shoulders we stand on. They are the forgotten, unspectacular, hard working pioneers who broke sweat and bone to shape our world. Civilization seems fragile enough today and this film reminds us just how fragile putting one together really was.”
Mary Bee is a woman from New York who has, “cleanliness is godliness” and all that jazz, attempted to carry eastern qualities of civilization to the frontier. The Homesman is not so much a western as a midwestern, if that were a genre, since it follows a journey eastward from Nebraska, making pit stops at various iterations of civilization at its most infantile forms. The Nebraska from which Cuddy and Briggs hail is warm and together, a rudimentary version of somewhere people would want to live. The Iowan town at the film’s closure is more pompous and magisterial, where a man like Briggs isn’t welcome even when he puts on a nice suit and pretends to be fancy. And the space in-between is a poignant criticism of the foundation upon which many American towns were built.
“The smooth-talking Irishman proprietor hopes to attract investors to this little spot in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sheer emptiness. Beautifully conceived and shot, the section is a tangent… as well as a sardonic, pointed commentary about the concept of civilization. Civilization, as represented by the small huddle of farms out in Nebraska, does its best to help those who need it. Civilization, as represented by the tiny town in Iowa, is kind and genteel, although it doesn't quite know what to do with a man like Briggs. Elsewhere, though, like at the totally empty Fairfield Hotel, with its sideboard heaped with luscious food, and its paintings of naked women in the lobby, civilization is cold and unfeeling.” - Sheila O'Malley, RogerEbert.com