THE HOMESMAN * * * 1 / 2
Starring Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow, James Spader and Meryl Streep. Screenplay by Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones.
They all call her “bossy” and “plain as an old tin pail.” As played by Hilary Swank with her trademark steel resolve, Miss Mary Bee Cuddy is a proud Methodist spinster making the best of things on the punishing plains of Nebraska’s territories. Like True Grit’s Mattie Ross all grown-up and taking no guff, Mary Bee’s is the capable, compassionate heart of The Homesman — a haunting and lyrical western directed by Tommy Lee Jones.
As the too few who saw Jones’ 2005 feature directorial debut The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada can attest, everybody’s favorite crusty character actor is also a fine filmmaker with a singular, serrated sensibility. Tommy Lee Jones strikes me as a guy who does what he damn well pleases, and like Three Burials before it The Homesman is a stubbornly uncommercial and richly challenging inversion of Americana, this time with an eye towards the pioneer women pushed to the margins of our history books.
It’s been a brutal winter in the territories, here photographed by the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto in vistas that will never end up on postcards. There’s a pitilessness to the elements undercutting any romantic notions of the Old West. Whether due to abuse, neglect or the just the grueling grind of frontier life, three local women have lost their minds. (In the film’s second-most gasp-inducing image, one of them tosses her infant child down an outhouse pit.) A preacher played by John Lithgow has arranged for the afflicted to be cared for across the river in Iowa. Getting them there is another story.
Like most men in the picture, their husbands are a mealy-mouthed, useless lot. Reckoning she’s “as good a man as any other,” Mary Bee Cuddy offers to undertake the arduous journey herself, with the “deranged” women confined in a covered wagon that looks like a jail cell on wheels. But she can’t do it alone.
So it’s a good thing for Mary Bee that she happens upon Tommy Lee Jones in his long-johns on a horse with a noose around his neck. She agrees to cut him free if he’ll help get her where she needs to go. Calling himself George Briggs (a name he just made up off the top of his head), Jones is a grave-robbing, army-deserting claim-jumper with a penchant for profanity and drink. Or, as Mary Bee describes him, “a man of low character.”
Swank and Jones couldn’t possibly be more perfect for these roles. But while there’s a fair amount of humor to be found in prim and proper Mary Bee butting heads with this whiskeyed reprobate, The Homesman is hardly Rooster Cogburn (or even True Grit.) This is a long ride across desolate lands, and any faces met along the way will probably not be friendly. Briggs matter-of-factly notes that the best case scenario would be robbery, but any encounters will most likely end with murder and rape.
Based on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout (Jones co-wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver) The Homesman deliberately reverses the genre’s usual direction – it’s a western headed east. The film has a loping, episodic structure given to increasingly surreal interludes. Though at times it can be quite funny and warm, we are never far from horror, with the moaning madwomen in the back of the wagon serving as a Greek chorus of despair. Jones is more comfortable than most filmmakers with abrupt tonal shifts, and roughly two thirds of the way through the film rips the rug out from under us and becomes something else altogether.
I’ll tread lightly here to avoid spoilers, but the majority of reviews coming out of the film’s Cannes premiere suggested it was in these final reels that The Homesman lost its way. Ever the contrarian, I found the resolution remarkable. We’ve spent so long in the wretched wilderness that by the time we arrive in a proper city it feels like an alien planet, with Meryl Streep (of course) as a well-mannered voice of kindness ringing eerily false after all the insanity and brutality that have come before.
There’s a profound catharsis in a tiny, beautifully measured scene between Jones and Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross herself!) that delves deep into the infinite sadness behind this actor’s grizzled eyes. The most George Briggs can articulate is a murmured rebuke to Manifest Destiny platitudes. This is no country for young ladies, and The Homesman is a hell of a film.