THE HOMESMAN Review

Nowadays when one sees Hilary Swank gazing past the camera and through to the unknown on a poster we typically imagine it as a precursor to some uplifting tale where her character is the catalyst for change. One would again think that is the case with The Homesman as her Mary Bee Cuddy is certainly the most honorable character we come in contact with, but this isn't an uplifting drama that feels manufactured to redeem your confidence in the human race. In fact, if the film says anything about the human race it is about the savagery from which we spawned and the role of the female in the old west. Cuddy was a feminist without knowing the word to describe herself. She was a woman who heralded the strength of being a woman on her own, supporting herself and an advocate for equality all while feeling out of place because of the time in which she lived. It is an unfortunate scenario to say the least, but it certainly makes for an interesting character study and director Tommy Lee Jones seems to understand the ideas and themes he is playing with as his character, George Briggs, is both confused by yet struck with admiration by the confident and brave Ms. Cuddy. In The Homesman, what we have is a straight-forward tale of straight-forward people. There are no artistic flourishes (though much of the framing here results in a gorgeous visual prowess) or intent to be subtle about the politics of what topics the story is playing with, but rather Jones presents this story in a very matter-of-fact manner that suits the time period and the personalities of most while leaving the audience riddled with an unexpected clarity. It is one thing to say something turns out different than you expected because that would more generally be the case in film, but it is another to say you didn't expect what something had to offer and while I expected to get a fine enough western from an actor/director who clearly appreciates the genre, what I received was a meditative, heartbreaking and downright moving look at what life promised (or couldn't depending on how you look at it) during that time and how sometimes that wasn't enough to keep on going.
George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) faces off against a lone Cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson).
Based on a novel of same name by Glendon Swarthout and adapted by Jones along with screenwriters Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver, The Homesman tells the tale of three young women from a small desert town in Nebraska who begin to show signs of insanity. Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow) calls upon one of their husbands to escort the women to Iowa where they might receive care from Altha Carter (Meryl Streep). When none of the men offer their services for their wives well-being, Cuddy volunteers for the task alone. It is somewhat unheard of for a woman to take on such a task, but there is clearly great respect for Cuddy in the town and the Reverand agrees to her offer. The women - Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknapp (Miranda Otto) and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) - have reached the depths of disparity that include abandoning their children, thinking they're God and essentially becoming nothing resembling their former selves. Cuddy rounds the women up into the back of a wagon that is akin to a prison cell and sets out on her way. As she readies to leave town she has a run-in with Briggs, a dishonest man caught for using another mans land as his own and left to hang for it. With his life on its last limb, Briggs begs for help from Cuddy who decides to free him in return for his help escorting the women. Briggs immediately regrets his decision when finding out what his job is and even tells Cuddy that he considers himself free to leave at any time. Still, he remains with her as they make the journey while it is their mismatched partnership and ideals that endure us through much of the journey rather than the obstacles they come in contact with. Briggs' experience comes in hand when fending off hostile Indians and when one of the women is taken in by a cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson), but even he isn't prepared for all of the hardships they are set to incur.

While there is much to appreciate about the film, what is most affecting is that it has the feeling of a slice of life drama perfectly in tune with its time period. Jones, as a director and clear fan of Swarthout's work understands that the archetypes of the genre aren't necessary, but rather it is the small, simple things that make this feel like a western and thus create a more substantial reaction to the haunting material. The west has always felt like something of a mythical land and time to the generations since John Wayne became more of a name than a presence and that's what Jones seems intent on doing away with. This wasn't a world full of extravagant dresses, line dancing and sentimentality where gun fights solved everything, but rather it was as authentic as what we experience today but with minimal resources. In this vein, Jones and his co-writers have expertly captured the day to day struggle of a woman who, despite significant financial prospects and sizeable land ownership, is continually rejected by potential husbands for being ugly. It is this basic of a premise that gives Cuddy her independent mentality yet keeps her life at bay from becoming all she hoped it to be. Jones, Fitzgerald and Oliver have taken this idea and given it something of a cohesive personality by seamlessly weaving between the drama and comedy that real life often allows to mingle among one another. As for Jones, the filmmaker, he has seemingly taken cues from his No Country for Old Men directors and their work on the re-make of True Grit in crafting a piece of Coen-esque dry comedy offset by the stark drama and tragedy included in the narrative. The majority of the scenes here consist of two people talking back and forth, whether it be Jones and Swank, Jones and any number of adversaries or Swank and the townsfolk from which she is both adored and outcast. In these scenes, Jones keeps the pacing quick while his actors straddle the line between wit and misfortune to the effect we remain fully absorbed in the ever-deteriorating circumstances.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) takes on a challenge that might have been more than she bargained for.
Speaking of the actors present here, while much of the work falls on Swank and the director, Jones has gathered himself an impressive amount of supporting players. While none of these "names" have enough screen time to really develop a character enough to make any type of lasting impression, by casting these recognizable yet prestigious actors the film automatically ups its credibility. Whether it be Lithgow mediating in his cunning yet humble way as the town Reverand at the beginning or James Spader as Aloysius Duffy, a stuffy hotel owner who refuses to give Briggs and the women any shelter or food. Spader has always played jerk well and Jones clearly cast him in this favor in order to immediately elicit those qualities. The same could be said for William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons and Hailee Steinfeld who also show up at one point or another. As the three women who have gone crazy Gummer, Otto and Richter have a difficult line to walk in making these women believable in their illness while keeping the understated current of what might be the cause of their current state always present. The real weight here though comes from Swank even if Jones' Briggs eventually becomes more of the central character. As Cuddy, Swank is a man among men, a person not bound by her gender who longs to be desired, but is intimidating to the point it is not only her looks that the men can't look past. Swank has always been an expert at conveying the more intimate elements of a character and with Cuddy she clearly puts her heart and soul into the performance as Cuddy herself goes from a pent-up, refined presence to the slowly unraveling depression that overtakes her better senses. On the other hand, Jones isn't really doing anything new here as he can play the old curmudgeon in his sleep, but his temperament here at least helps to reinforce the intended tone of his film. Early in the movie a character says, "People like to talk about death and taxes, but when it comes to crazy-they stay hushed up." Jones is intent on imparting on us these societal expectations of his films world and by letting the characters simply live, exist and deal he accomplishes that.