With its bleak, unsparing depiction of life on the frontier in the 1850's, "The Homesman" stands in stark contrast to what we tend to think of as a traditional Western. Far from the romantic odes to the heroic figures of the Old West we're used to seeing, the film instead delivers a mournful tale of unimaginable adversity while also acting as a sort of feminist critique of the genre. That this story is directed and co-written by Tommy Lee Jones (with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, adapting from the novel by GlendonSwarthout) is just one of the many surprising aspects of this unconventional and ultimately rather subversive film.
Westerns have never been known for particularly strong or multifaceted depictions of women, but "The Homesman" gives us a great one in the form of Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) a no-nonsense, 31-year-old pioneer woman living on her own in the Nebraska Territory. Despite capably running a farm well enough to live comfortably, Mary finds her proposals of marriage dismissed (on two separate occasions) on account of her intended finding her too plain and too bossy to be of any appeal. No matter how intelligent and skilled she may be, her looks and willingness to play the submissive wife are the attributes she's judged by in the community and by the men that surround her.
Following a particularly harsh winter, three women in the village appear to have lost their minds, driven mad by unrelenting hardship, death, and disease. Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) has seen all three of her children die of diphtheria in the same week, and Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) drowned her infant child in an outhouse, while GroSvendsen (Sonja Richter) has turned deranged as the result of the loss of her mother and a marriage to a brute of a husband. With each of their husbands unable or unwilling to take care of them, it's decided that the women should be taken to a sanitorium run by a Methodist minister in Iowa, where they can be looked after. When none of the men in the village will volunteer for the task, Mary agrees to take the women on the five-week-long trek across the Missouri River and back toward civilization. Knowing the difficulty that awaits, she enlists the aid of a cantankerous claim jumper who calls himself George Briggs (Jones) after saving him from hanging and promising him $300 in bank notes for his trouble. With the three near-catatonic women tied up and chained inside a wooden box of a wagon, the group head off East, and the majority of the film's running time is devoted to their journey: the obstacles they face and the sundry individuals they come across.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between Cuddy and Briggs, and the continual shifts in how they view and relate to one another. Throughout the journey, they show themselves to be more complicated than they first appear, revealing both more strength and more vulnerability than either one expects. Swank and Jones both give spectacular performances, adding impressive layers to their archetypal roles.
In his second feature (after 2005's "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada"), Tommy Lee Jones adamantly refuses to offer a neat, tidy tale for his audience to easily digest, and "The Homesman" frequently makes for a singularly unusual viewing experience. Its hopelessly bleak depiction of the Old West is shot through with moments of almost pitch black humor and jarring tonal shifts. Even with the odd bit of levity, its world is one of hardship and loneliness that makes damaged, pitiful creatures of those lucky (or unlucky) enough to live through it, and the script is especially attuned to the many sacrifices women in particular were frequently called upon to make. "The Homesman" seems to imply that the women's madness is an inevitable side effect of life as an early settler. Its story offers an indelible counter to the idea of the American frontier as a land of opportunity: for every few who find their fortune, countless more are left broken in the dust.
George Grella also saw "The Homesman." For his take on the film, click here.