Nothing lasts long in the austere Wild West of Tommy Lee Jones‘ “The Homesman.” Crops, infants, kindness, sanity: all are rubbed out of existence by human frailty and the cruel whims of nature.
Jones’ riveting Western is bleak and very nearly misanthropic, but it’s also passionate, earthy, unpredictable, sensitive, and gloriously distinct.
Fighting for its life in the antebellum Nebraska territories is heroism itself. It seems to find a willing host in the robust 31-year-old spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a settler from upstate New York who can cook, clean and plow the fields with tireless strength, but who would like a husband, or as she might put it, a teammate.
When a nearby farmer (Evan Jones) rejects her proposal of marriage (“You are too bossy and too damn plain,” she’s told by the jerk, who resembles a troll himself), Cuddy volunteers to undertake the months-long journey of transporting three mentally ill women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) by horse and carriage to urban Iowa, where they may be returned to their birth families.
Along the way, she recruits the rascally and evasive fugitive George Briggs (Jones), whom she cuts down from a noose, to aid her in return for a small fortune at the end of the trip. In contemporary movie parlance, she’s the humorless, uptight prig and he the grinning, devil-may-care charmer (Jones hasn’t been this fun and loose-limbed in a long time). But their noble mission, framed against the spare, Rothko-esque landscapes of empty blue skies and barren yellow dust, makes them something grander, like the New World’s answer to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
After a somewhat confusing first act (it’s initially hard to tell apart Otto and Richter’s characters), Jones lulls the audience with satisfying conventionality in the middle section, where the two caretakers run into the expected challenges: uncooperative charges, inclement weather, food shortages, and encounters with hostile Native Americans.
It’s all rather fine and good, the sense of exhausted adventure nearly distracting us from Jones and his co-scripters Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver’s one major misstep: the near-absolute lack of interaction among the passengers. The screenplay gets around this by making Gummer’s character catatonic and the other two feral and foreign-tongued, and thus mute and tied to the coach during all their waking hours.
But it’s entirely implausible that this trio wouldn’t cultivate some kind of relationship after spending so much time in close quarters, and their lack of character development makes clear that their diagnosis should be “movie-crazy,” with a traumatic catalyst and ostentatious displays of strange behavior.
Jones pays their femininity tribute in a silent, pre-Raphaelite bathing scene, in which they sit still on boulders with their backs to the camera, their long, curly, identical locks cascading down their pale backs. It’s a voyeur’s shot, and one that dehumanizes them as individuals by romanticizing their fragility.
Marketing for “The Homesman,” including a highly publicized press conference at Cannes with Jones, has played up the film’s feminism. But those looking for an admiring portrait of a 19th-century Rosie the Riveter should look elsewhere (perhaps the Coen brothers’ True Grit). Rather than a superheroine, Cuddy is revealed in a poignant third-act twist to be a real person cursed with gallant ideals who’s starving for all the fundamental needs of human beings. Swank is simply marvelous, her lanky frame in billowy dresses as expressive as her hard eyes and yearning mouth.
Jones, who gave himself the far showier role as the jigging, quipping, ass-scratching anti-hero, charms as he inevitably warms to Cuddy and their three passengers. Briggs enjoys one very traditional revenge storyline, but the character is anything but. His brief encounter with dignity tragically proves to be only a flirtation, but it’s precisely that mercurialness that makes him such a truthful and compelling figure.
Swank and Jones are joined by an embarrassment of riches in acting talent, including Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, James Spader, Jesse Plemons, Hailee Steinfeld, all in bit roles that fail to do those performers justice.
Before her ambitious undertaking, Cuddy sits at a table, humming and tapping her fingers on a scarf printed with the black and white keys of a piano. She aches for music, for trees, for civilization, as yet unaware that compassion and empathy are as ephemeral as the songs she sings to herself.