Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman is an unflinching western and that’s a damn good thing. This is a movie that explores the ruthlessness of life on the American frontier, about how social conventions can become traps and necessities at the same time. Based on Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel of the same name, this 2014 film epitomizes the power of the genre when it comes to weaving human stories.
Without question, this is a bleak experience. It contends with the part of the West that is often swept aside by American westerns in favour of explosive tales of gunslingers and heroes. Here, Jones is at home working through his aesthetic. He’s known for being a touch on the cantankerous side, but the meticulousness and the passion services him well. And that subsequently serves the audience well.
Hilary Swank stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a 31-year-old unmarried landowner in the Nebraska Territory. She is trying to land a husband for predominately economic reasons, but she’s rejected a number of times for being “too bossy” and “too plain.” One day, she’s tasked to transfer three “insane” young women to a church in Iowa that will get them the help they need.
Cuddy encounters the claim-jumper George Briggs (Jones) along the way and saves him from execution. She demands that he help her with the transportation of the women to Iowa and he does so. The trip is difficult, to say the least, with the demands of the mentally ill women wearing on Briggs and Cuddy and their own interpersonal issues coming to light.
The Homesman carves out a compelling image of existence for women in the American West. Swank’s character is a capable and assertive woman, but the demands of life are tenacious. She wants to have children and does what she can to arrange a businesslike arrangement with Bob Giffen (Evan Jones), even cooking him a nice dinner and playing some music. It doesn’t go well.
This wears on her, but not because she’s broken-hearted or feeble. She is in a fraught position and she is motivated by her isolation to seek natural camaraderie. She wants the family and the husband and she tires of being considered a “spinster” by the gossipy old women in her community.
The other women in The Homesman have clearly lost their minds to the fires of life. They’ve all suffered what would be considered breakdowns, with one losing her children to diphtheria and another repeatedly raped by her husband. Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter bring a miserable self-possession to their characters.
Jones’ Briggs fits into the mix as a man without a place to hang his hat. He has an opportunity for redemption, too, and there are threads of decency to his character. He’s not the most insalubrious of sorts and that makes him worthy enough for Cuddy to hitch her proverbial wagon to. When desire does threaten to bud, it ends the only way it really should.
Other tremendous character actors dot the landscape of The Homesman, including John Lithgow as a preacher and James Spader as the self-seeking hotelier Aloysius Duffy. Meryl Streep plays Altha Carter and she brings her all to a precise minor role.
The excellent cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shot similar landscapes for Brokeback Mountain, brings an evocative naturalism to The Homesman. He covers the anguish of the land, symbolizing both the endlessness of desolation and the miracle of simple things like trees. Prieto gives the sprawling land a certain disconcerted quality, with flawlessly framed shots and graceful sweeps.
There are no fantasies in The Homesman and that is to its credit. The land is harsh and the people who live on it are harsher. Time is running out for everyone. The perpetuity of death is in the wind, in the dirt, in the trees. It warbles in the performances and in Marco Beltrami’s score.
Jones has crafted a powerful and austere western. The Homesman is a slow-burning affair, but it is by no means a dull one. It delves deep, nearly deconstructing the American western myth by shedding light on how life truly was for women and men navigating the moral morass of a culture forged in chaos. Other westerns have done similar jobs, but Jones’ picture operates on a more personal level than most.