NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Jeremy

In Nebraska, a woman named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is plowing through her field with her mules. Later, she has a man named Bob Giffen (Evan Jones) come over for dinner. Mary proposes marriage to Bob so that they can put their land and capital together. She even sings to him while playing her piano, but Bob rejects her for being too bossy and plain, and says that it would be better to find a wife out east.

The harsh conditions affect the land, but also the minds of three separate women in particular. Vester Belknap (William Fichtner) and his wife Theoline (Miranda Otto) notice their livestock has died out, causing Theoline to weep. Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) watches as her mother passes away, and she is later raped repeatedly by her husband Thor (David Dencik). Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) has killed her child and appears to be in a catatonic state. Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow) gathers the husbands in church, along with Mary, to tell them that the women need to be taken to a church in Iowa. Vester declines to volunteer for the task, so Mary steps in for him. Dowd places three beans in a hat, and the person to take the black bean will escort the women. Mary picks the black bean.

A claim jumper named George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) is caught by several men as he tries to use Bob's land as his own. The men try to smoke him out from the shed, and Briggs emerges and collapses.

Mary gathers the women in their homes. Arabella's husband Garn (Jesse Plemons) carries her to the carriage. Gro is tied up after suffering a breakdown and is constantly repeating "God will strike you down." With all the women, Mary sets off for Iowa. Dowd catches her and prays with Mary before departing. On the road, Mary comes across Briggs as he is sitting on a horse with a noose tied around his neck. He begs Mary to help him, and she agrees to cut him down on the condition that he helps her escort the women to Iowa. He says yes, and she cuts the rope.

Mary takes Briggs in and gives him new clothes and food. She doesn't appreciate his behavior as he curses and seems callous toward the women's condition. However, he goes along for the ride after Mary promises him $300 once they reach their desintation.

Along the way, they encounter hostile Native Americans, all of whom Briggs is able to fend off without much conflict. After the group sets up camp for the night, they awaken the next morning to find that Arabella is missing. Briggs goes off to find her with a freighter (Tim Blake Nelson). He intends to rape her and tries to draw his gun on Briggs, but Briggs takes his out as fast as the freighter. The two then fight for Arabella, which the freighter nearly choking Briggs until Arabella takes a gun and shoots the man in the head. She rejoins Briggs.

Mary notices a grave that's been desecrated and stays behind to restore it while Briggs carries on. Mary later catches up with them. Unfortunately, she has started to grow more and more depressed over her lonely state. She proposes marriage to Briggs, who rejects her as well for being plain. At night, she disrobes and convinces Briggs to have sex with her. He complies.

The next morning, Briggs finds that Mary hung herself in a tree. Devastated, he buries her and angrily lashes out at Arabella, Gro, and Theoline, blaming them for being responsible for Mary's death. He abandons them, but they follow him on foot and nearly drown in the river. He decides to keep his promise to Mary even though she failed to keep hers.

Briggs brings the women to an abandoned hotel owned by Aloysius Duffy (James Spader). Briggs is told there is no room at the hotel because Duffy is expecting investors to stop by and check the place out. Angry, Briggs draws his gun while Duffy's men draw theirs. Later that night, Briggs finds a woman in the hotel and takes her out before he burns the place down. He also manages to shoot Duffy in the foot. He even swipes a roasted pig for him and the women to feast on.

Briggs finally makes it to the church in Iowa. He meets the reverend's wife, Altha Carter (Meryl Streep), and informs her of Mary's death, but he says she died of a fever instead. The women are brought into the care of the church, while Briggs spends some time in the area. He briefly chats up a young girl named Tabitha Hutchinson (Hailee Steinfeld). Briggs tells her about Mary and says she was as fine a woman that ever did walk. Briggs tells Tabitha they should marry, and she says maybe, but Briggs retracts his statement as she is too young.

Briggs makes a headstone for Mary and joins some people on a barge. He drinks and sings while firing off his gun to a crowd of onlookers. As the barge departs, someone accidentally knocks Mary's headstone into the water. Briggs just continues to sing and dance.

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