Apart from the surly old bandit referred to by the film’s title, nearly all the characters of import in Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” are women. Some, like the hardy pioneer embodied by Hilary Swank, demonstrate what fortitude it took to succeed on the frontier. Others, such as the three “cuckoo clocks” she volunteers to escort back East, reflect the consequences that such a demanding life could put on those of a less resilient temperament. Between those two extremes exists a range as vast as the horizons in this sturdy cross-country Western, which shares more than just an actor in common with “Lonesome Dove” and could lasso some of its audience, with the right kind of push.
“People like to talk about death and taxes, but when it comes to crazy, they stay hushed up,” notes a townsperson in the hardscrabble Nebraska Territories where the seemingly linear but surprisingly unpredictable story begins. That amateur philosopher’s observation is as true today as it might have been in 1854, which means instead of rehashing the same stale Old West stories that have all but exhausted the genre, “The Homesman” — based on a novel by “The Shootist” scribe Glendon Swarthout once eyed for adaptation by Sam Shepard — has the unique advantage of exploring a relatively overlooked chapter of America’s past.
Jones and co-writers Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver privilege their female perspective from the outset, introducing stalwart yet plain 31-year-old Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) behind her plow. A relative success among a community of hard-luck farmers, Mary Bee still lacks a husband, which may be for the best, considering the unhappy state of the three young wives the film introduces next: Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer, the daughter of Meryl Streep) lost three children to diphtheria; Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) tossed her infant down the outhouse hole; and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) appears to be possessed by demons.
In contrast with Mary Bee’s sympathetic portrayal, the footage of these three women would be right at home in a Japanese horror movie and may well have been moved from later in the film (perhaps these unsettling vignettes seemed reductively analytical when presented as flashbacks) in order to humanize her “cargo” from the outset. Otherwise, with less to go on, the impression might have been that the frontier had turned these women feral. At any rate, the town preacher (John Lithgow) decides the only thing to be done is to pack them up and drive them back to Iowa, where a Methodist minister’s wife (Streep herself, the picture of kindness) has offered them hospice — except no man will do it, which is how Mary Bee came to lead this lunatic expedition.
Just as she is setting out, Mary Bee happens upon a wild card who calls himself George Briggs (Jones), a claim-jumping army deserter with a noose around his neck and an unsteady horse beneath him. He’s not in much of a position to negotiate, which means Mary Bee can enlist his help in exchange for saving his life. A proud and devoutly religious woman, Mary Bee isn’t normally the type to ask for help, but lately, she seems to have recognized that life might be a little less arduous with someone to share it with, and while the thought is nowhere in her mind at the time, a bonding experience such as this could be a way of auditioning a suitable mate.
As it happens, “The Homesman” is neither so conventional as that, nor so fresh as to mess with the relatively episodic series of incidents that define such a trek — quite unlike the more prismatic structure of Jones’ exceptional first feature, 2005’s “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” With three burials of its own, this more conventionally told feature similarly invests character and landscape with enormous significance, creating in Mary Bee and George personalities large enough to share the frame with the expansive Midwestern sky (a good deal of the time, it’s actually New Mexico or Georgia we’re looking at).
Captured in widescreen by “Babel” d.p. Rodrigo Prieto and hauntingly underscored by composer Marco Beltrami’s piano-and-string themes, this is different topography from that of John Ford movies: flat and forlorn open prairie, absent of water and trees. Though there’s a natural appeal to the unspoiled American outdoors, these vistas aren’t presented as scenic per se (effectively denying one of the pleasures the Western genre typically delivers), and it’s not a place one would want to be left stranded alone, much less one to share with three wailing women.
As Western tropes go, this journey plays the myth almost in reverse: Though the pack moves screen-left-to-right, their frame wagon is headed in the “wrong” direction, a rolling sanitarium with barred windows and hard-wood top returning East with those who couldn’t make it on the frontier. If mishandled, such a mission could all too easily have slipped into condescending comedy, but instead, Jones allows himself — along with several other unflattering male characters, including those played by a randy Tim Blake Nelson and a dandy James Spader — to serve as the butt of whatever humor exists.
Though playing comfortably within his familiar curmudgeonly old coot mode, the actor nevertheless resists letting his cantankerous mannerisms lapse into shtick. From the character’s powder-keg introduction to his final jig, Jones distinguishes George from the grumps he’s played in the past, creating yet another memorable antihero for his oeuvre. Still, he’s most generous toward Swank, in whom he recognizes a no-nonsense actress with the chops to convey the quiet suffering her duty-bound character holds inside — qualities his character also sees reflected by “True Grit’s” Hailee Steinfeld in the final stretch.
Unlike other actor-directors, Jones never seems to indulge excess on the part of his cast. Though the characters are strong, the performances are understated. Even the three ladies settle into a state of near-catatonia after awhile, rather than indulging their various “hysterias.” In the past, people have whispered about Jones’ attitudes toward women; with this film, he says a thing or two on the subject with a sensitivity that comes as a welcome surprise.