I actually saw this a while back but am finally getting around to posting my thoughts on it. As is my tradition, after any new Meryl film I see, regardless the size of her role, a "review" is required. News came of Meryl's involvement in this project over two years ago, with filming completed by spring 2013. After teaming with Tommy Lee Jones in Hope Springs in 2012, Streep was happy to make a cameo in this Jones-directed Western.
Taking place in the mid 19th century in the Nebraska Territory, the story follows a devout spinster, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), as she steps up to volunteer her services in escorting three women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer and Sonja Richter) who have gone insane on the harsh frontier, across the Great Plains to Iowa, where they can then be handed off to a reverend's wife (Streep) for safe passage to family on the east coast.
Not long after her journey begins, Cuddy encounters claim jumper George Briggs (Jones), and saves him from an impending lynching. In return for his life, Cuddy makes Briggs swear to help her on the journey. If they reach Iowa as intended, $300 would be his payment. Briggs agrees and the two make their way across the frontier, encountering thieves, "Indians" and inclement weather.
Having been unsuccessful in securing a husband for herself, Cuddy ultimately suggests that she and Briggs marry and try to make a life together. Briggs declines the offer, but when Cuddy propositions him later that night, the two sleep together. The next morning, Briggs wakes to find that Cuddy has hanged herself from a nearby tree.
Temporarily considering leaving the insane women behind, Briggs reconsiders when they begin to follow him into a river. After being shortly sidetracked at a hotel that shows little hospitality (Briggs burns it down in frustration) the quartet finally reach Iowa and the women are delivered to Altha Carter, the reverend's wife. This brief appearance in a film involving her daughter (Gummer) is similar to Streep's showing in 2007 in Evening, a film which co-starred Meryl's eldest daughter Mamie.
After Briggs' delivery is complete, he decides to have a gravestone made for Cuddy, only for it be accidentally knocked into the river as he drunkenly makes his way out of town.
It's nice to see a good story with a woman mostly at its center, albeit in a life where she would rather commit suicide than go on living unmarried. Cuddy's "plain" appearance had essentially isolated her, and although quite capable of managing on her own, Briggs' rejection was one too many for her. Uncharacteristically seducing him, she couldn't live with herself after this "sin."
Jones is great as the incorrigible wanderer, and Swank, although as effective in her role, shows me little I feel I haven't seen from her before. There's not much to say about Meryl's role, aside from her being her usual convincing self. The trio of "touched" ladies had some pretty physical acting to do and for the most part didn't seem too over the top, although at times their condition seemed unfittingly bizarre.
The film is wonderfully shot against the beautiful backdrop of New Mexico. It's interesting how the picture, although essentially set in the wilderness of the 1800's, has a kind of contemporary feel to it, enhancing a certain melancholy feel to the story. It's unlikely I'll watch it again anytime soon, but with an 80% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I'm thrilled Meryl was involved in a highly-praised film following the mostly panned summer release of The Giver.