Potential Space

by Jane Reingold, MFT, Impulse Staff Writer


The film opens with shots of an azure sky stretching far and wide over a thin strip of arid, barren land. The infinite sky dwarfs the golden hues across the empty plain, no tree or structure in sight. The landscape depicted is evocative of a particular psychological environment, an inhospitable place, a place or state one could imagine getting lost in, succumbing to the elements, coming untethered without a landmark or beacon to guide one home, back to oneself. A place of utter desolation, isolation -- madness.

In Tommy Lee Jones's The Homesman (2014), set in 1850's Nebraska, nothing can take root; expansiveness moves into desolation; something generative turns desolate. The film depicts a place where extreme trauma and isolation have prevailed and a descent into psychosis has provided the only refuge for three female minds that, as one character states, have been "dealt more than they can bear."

We see a woman emerge from a mud brick house, clutching a baby wrapped in a blanket. She walks to a wood pile and places the baby next to two other dead children. Her husband stands off to the edge of the frame. The harshness of the environment, of disease, is palpable, as is the immense emotional gulf between the couple. The intolerable combination of emotional disconnection and dislocation, isolation from community and oneself, the loss of the internal and external maternal take her to the limit of what a person can bear, making her mind infertile. We witness her descent into a fragmented, encapsulated, catatonic breakdown, shutting down from reality, retreating from unbearable pain.

We see her in the throes of breakdown, desperately clutching the ragdoll of one of her dead children. She is in a state of despair, of psychotic shutdown, virtually unreachable. During a respite from their long journey to get help, her caretaker offers her water, bringing a cup to her lips; she drinks. Then a thimble is filled with water and is offered to the woman's doll. In this powerful and poignant moment, the woman smiles and looks up for the first time. A potential space is opened between the two of them; without saying a word, they make meaningful contact. A preverbal exchange: a baby is given water. In this moment they are both in transitional phenomena, living through an experience together, in a place where the two can meet.

Despite the somewhat tragic end to this film, we are nonetheless left with some hope: even when we are lost like tumbleweeds, adrift on the dusty, barren plains, some contact is possible in an intermediate space, where perhaps the birth/rebirth of the generativity of the mind is possible.