Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones.
Written by: Tommy Lee Jones & Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley A. Oliver based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout.
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones (George Briggs), Hilary Swank (Mary Bee Cuddy), Grace Gummer (Arabella Sours), Miranda Otto (Theoline Belknapp), Sonja Richter (Gro Svendsen), David Dencik (Thor Svendsen), John Lithgow (Reverend Dowd), Tim Blake Nelson (The Freighter), James Spader (Aloysius Duffy), William Fichtner (Vester Belknap), Jesse Plemons (Garn Sours), Evan Jones (Bob Giffin), Hailee Steinfeld (Tabitha Hutchinson), Meryl Streep (Altha Carter).
As a genre, the Western has never been particularly kind to women – often seeing them as either a reward for the male characters who behave well, or else nothing but trouble for the men. Westerns that actually do anything of real interest with their female characters – films like Johnny Guitar (1954) or Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) or The Missing (2003) – are few and far between. To a certain extent, Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman looks to redress this historic wrong – telling the story of three women who have been driven made by life on the frontier, and their abusive, uncaring husbands, and one woman who agrees to take them across the plains to a place where they will be cared for, when none of her husbands are willing to go. The portrait of women in the West is the most interesting thing about the film – so it’s unfortunate that the movie digresses from what makes it so unique much of the time.
In the opening scenes of the movie, we see how three women (played by Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer and Sonja Richter) are driven crazy by their lives in a small, Nebraska town – how they have babies who die, husbands who abuse and rape them, and don’t give them a thought other than that, etc. These sense flash by in a matter of minutes, and for the rest of the movie the three actresses are not given much to do except to act like characters from Once Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the background. The movie focuses its attention on another woman – Marry Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) – another frontier woman, but unlike the women who have gone crazy, she seems to be able to hold things together. She is a woman of means – and has a nice spread – but she’s “plain”, and not exactly young so she does not have a husband – and her options are slim. She volunteers to take the women from Nebraska to Iowa – where their families are originally from – but it’s a long, dangerous journey for anyone – especially a woman. She comes across George Briggs (Jones), a claim jumper in the process of being hung – and offers to save him if he will accompany her on the journey. To sweeten the deal, she will give him $300 when they get there. He agrees.
At its best, The Homesman is a dark Western – there is nothing romantic about Jones’ view of the Old West, like we see in many Westerns. Rodrigo Prieto’s excellent cinematography makes the West look like a cold, barren, desolate place – and the men in the movie are horrible to such a degree that the fact that the women have gone crazy makes a lot of sense. For much of the running time, The Homesman seems to be about two examples of the opposite of the rest of the characters – a tough as nails woman who can not only survive the sexism of the West, but thrive in it, and a man who doesn’t immediately treat a woman as nothing more than a sex object (when one of the women runs off, and Jones confronts the man who has her –played in another great, dirty performance by Tim Blake Nelson telling her she isn’t in a condition that anyone would want her, Nelson’s response is “She can spread her legs, can’t she?”, which shows, in one blunt line, what most men in the movie see women as). Eventually though, things happen that complicate both major characters.
The problem with the movie is that Jones struggles throughout to find a consistent tone. The movie veers wildly from disturbing tragedy to almost outright comedy, often right next to each other, and the film feels rather schizophrenic. An obvious inspiration for the film would be True Grit – more the Coen’s version, than the classic John Wayne one, with Swank – in her best performance in quite some time – essentially playing a grown up version of Maddie, and Jones going over the top as a character not unlike Rooster Cogburn. The Coens were better able to juggle the violence and the comedy in True Grit than Jones is – at least in part because True Grit never gets as dark as The Homesman gets (a baby is thrown down the hole of an outhouse after all), and never gets as broadly comedic as The Homesman does either.
The last act of the movie is more consistent in terms of tone – dark – than the first two, but also rather less daring. The most interesting thing about The Homesman is its view of woman in the West – something that has never really been addressed in an American movie, and while the last act has some of The Homesman’s best moments – in particular a cameo by James Spader – it is also abandons what makes the film as interesting as it had been to that point.
But while The Homesman is not close to a great film – it’s too uneven for that – it is an interesting one, and a great one to look at. The Western is all but dead – and American movies are poorer for that – but at least The Homesman attempts to do something different. It doesn’t quite pull it off, but I admire the effort.