Up until a few weeks ago, The Homesman was a film that I knew little to nothing about. My very first encounter with the picture came through the confused memory of a good friend (The Flim Culb) who stated that a movie was coming out involving Hilary Swank escorting three mad women across the plains of the Wild West. At this loose premise alone I knew that I would be all in, and upon later research found that The Homesman is something of a pet project for actor Tommy Lee Jones, seemingly putting his finger in every possible pie with writing, producing, directing and acting credits to boast. Having an affection for films of this ilk, most recently 2010’s excellent True Grit, I had high hopes that a promising cast and intriguing plot would rank the film among my favourites of the year.
Based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout, The Homesman’s initial focus centres on Mary Bee Cundy (Hilary Swank), a middle aged spinster and native New Yorker who has settled in the 1850’s Midwest without a husband and without much happiness. Cundy is part of a small community if which three wives have been stricken with mental breakdowns for reasons including the sudden deaths of their children and prolonged spousal abuse. With no man willing to transport the women back East for care, Mary Bee takes initiative and volunteers for the job herself. At an early stage during her journey, she encounters a claim jumper named George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), whose life she saves in return for help with her long and arduous task. The film then proceeds in classic road trip fashion, with Mary Bee, George and their three human cargo making their way across the hostile and unforgiving landscape, encountering a number of obstacles along way ranging from the threat of Native American attack to the simple torture of the freezing winter. The thing I found most surprising and refreshing was the picture’s absolutely unapologetic bleakness, though given the subject matter perhaps it was naive to imagine otherwise. A number of scenes throughout are genuinely uncomfortable to witness, with the filmmakers pulling no punches both in the portrayal of madness and in the depiction of just how volatile a place the Midwest was in the middle of the nineteenth century. Some Westerns are often guilty of glorifying this time period, of showing the audience a rose tinted version of the Wild West, but The Homesman highlights the vast openness, isolation and loneliness of such a desolate place showing through each character a different consequence of the failed opportunism that this supposed ‘promised land’ offered. The film does suffer from a bloated running time, and it could be argued that the lives of the three mad women in question (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) and not fully developed, but in my opinion the filmmakers are more concerned with presenting an overall interpretation of themes that epitomise the Midwest of the 1800’s rather than a character drama dedicated to their journeys and resolutions.
Both Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones give fantastic performances as Mary Bee Cuddy and George Briggs. Swank in particular shows excellent talent and intuition in so effortlessly portraying a character who is comprised of equals parts strength and crushing desperation. Mary Bee is a woman with plain looks who wants more than anything the one thing that she cannot seem to find, love. One of the film’s very first scenes depicts her being scornfully rejected by a male acquaintance with whom she suggests marriage, and to then encourage the audience to believe in her as anything other than a sad, lonely woman (for the most part, anyway) is testament to Swank’s portrayal. Tommy Lee Jones’ George Briggs is the perfect cinematic antidote to Swank’s sombre Cuddy, bringing a number of the archetypal Western traits to the narrative without ever cheapening it or clouding its message. The chemistry shared by the two leads is a joy to watch, with both actors given a lot of indulgent material to work with but always managing to find integrity in their lines and actions. The three mad women played by Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter and Grace Gummer have very little dialogue with which to work, so instead make an impact mainly in the backgrounds of scenes with their sad and quirky actions, each actress having perfected the middle distance stare and classic head lulling that accompanies characters of this kind. Grace Gummer’s family connections appear to have cast good fortune upon the picture, as her mother, a certain Meryl Streep, makes a brief but enjoyable cameo towards the film’s conclusion. A maternal resemblance is clear for all too see, let us hope that mother’s cinematic talents are hereditary.
Overall, The Homesman is a good, meaty, above average period piece that, though perhaps not one for the ages, is original in its approach and hardly puts a foot wrong throughout. I applaud both the filmmakers and the source material for at times zigging when they could have more comfortably zagged, with a handful of key moments genuinely taking me by surprise in what I thought was a film that might run the danger of becoming plodding and predictable. The film is a Western that looks back not with a view of the American Dream, but the American nightmare, incorporating more themes than can usually be accredited to the genre and having the grace and ability to not sound preachy or condescending whilst doing so. Absolutely worth a watch, The Homesman will leave you thinking for a couple of days afterwards.