Dr. Donna Copeland’s
TOMMY LEE JONES HILARY SWANK
GRACE GUMMER MIRANDA OTTO JOHN LITHGOW JAMES SPADER
TIM BLAKE NELSON WILLIAM FICHTNER MERYL STREEP
Tommy Lee Jones’ latest film, the follow-up to his 2005 directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, takes us as far away from the conventional western as I have seen from any modern director. The entire premise, movement heading from west to east, an unmarried female transporting crazy women back to Iowa—all of it goes against everything cinema has taught us about the western. Jones, who also co-wrote the screenplay, has a lot of things to say; however, he does it with subtlety, and sometimes pushes questions over to the viewers to make their own assertions. Two-time Oscar winner Swank turns in another great performance, giving her all to a role that seems suited to her capabilities.
In the Nebraska Territory in the late 1800’s, Mary Bee Cuddy is 31 years old, unmarried and self-sufficient on her farmland. Men tell her about her plain face and bossy nature, and refuse to marry her. So when the local preacher asks for someone to take three crazy women whose husbands cannot take care of them back east to their families—a five-week journey by wagon--she is the only volunteer. On her way home after picking up the wagon, she encounters scoundrel George Briggs (Jones). She saves his life and orders him to assist her with the women, promising him money when the delivery is complete. They encounter many things, such as defiled graves and Indians, but for Cuddy, the most frightening is a sense of hopelessness and what will become of her when and if she returns home.
It would seem like a crime against everything a western should stand for not to have a beautifully landscaped western genre film. Therefore, Jones enlisted cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Babel) to photograph the beautiful brush landscapes in the film, and his framing of nearly every shot with Swank looks like it belongs in an ancient version of National Geographic. The script journeys into unforeseen places, constantly reminding us that this is a segment of early western settler life we haven’t seen before. The film, for all it’s singing, dancing, and light-hearted moments, is predominately bleak. You don’t realize it fully until the credits role.
Jones makes us think and challenges the viewer by attempting something we haven’t seen before, and I cannot fault him on that. There are moments that work beautifully in The Homesman, and there are those that do not. It constantly surprises with each turn; just as we think we understand the characters, we are proven wrong. Perhaps that’s a lot to ask of an audience; perhaps it’s the fault of the author of the novel on which the film is based, Glendon Swarthout. The performances and the break from convention certainly make this film refreshing. The supporting roles and cameos only add to the film’s fleeting grandeur. I have no idea where or even if Swank can fit into the best actress race with such an uneven role, regardless of how pleasant she is to watch.
Final Thought – Convention defying, albeit perplexing, western.
By: Dustin Chase
The Homesman is not your typical western movie; it has more to do with human psychology and sociology, and what sometimes happens to those who are under stress and ill-equipped to manage. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is apparently not one of these; she farms a homestead on her own, maintains her house, goes to church, does her Christian duty, and plays the piano. When she doesn’t have a physical piano, she fingers a cloth keyboard and sings. When three women in the congregation lose their minds, she volunteers to take them east to Iowa so their families can take care of them. When two women protest that as a woman she should not take on the task, the minister (John Lithgow) says she is “as good a man as any man hereabouts.”
She is nervous about transporting them in a wagon across the prairie, however, and when she comes upon a man (Tommy Lee Jones) hanging from a tree, she agrees to cut him down if he will help her take the women east to their families. He agrees only out of desperation; he is not ready to die.
The women are indeed psychotic; one has to be tied down because she attacks whoever is in sight. They seem to have been driven crazy for various reasons, such as losing children to disease, but the film does not always clarify their histories. We’re introduced to them rapidly in the beginning without much explanation—which I see as a weakness in the exposition.
At any rate, the women are loaded onto a makeshift wagon that can be locked from the outside, and Mary Bee and “George Briggs”—a name he decides to call himself—take the reins of the horses and head out. You can imagine (I actually had a hard time of it) some of the issues they would encounter along the way (a runaway, Indians, snow), let alone hygiene (one of the woman has to be held and told to pee), food preparation, sleeping arrangements, etc. As expected, Cuddy and Briggs will have major disagreements along the way to establish dominance. The resolution of their conflicts and the outcome of their destination is one of the perhaps unique and surprising endings of a western genre film.
The Homesman is well directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is exquisite. The main actors (Jones, Swank, Lithgow, Spader, and Streep) are some of the best and shine in their roles. Jones has a couple of song and dance routines that are totally out of his usual character presentations and are a hoot—although you may not be able to understand the lyrics; it’s enough to watch him dance and shout. Swank easily conveys Cuddy’s strengths, and is able to elicit sympathy—maybe even pity—from the audience during her times of weakness. Spader and Streep have only cameo roles, but are powerful in the brief time they are on screen. The actresses portraying the psychotic women (Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter, and Miranda Otto) capture their distresses perfectly.
The Homesman is not likely to be a film for everyone; I had mixed feelings about it when I left the theater—presumably because of some of the more depressing, hopeless scenes, as well as a rather surprising ending. In addition, I think one character in particular is not consistent across time with how she i presented initially—not that I’m saying people don’t change, only that how this character is presented in the beginning does not plausibly lead to what happens later. Not so with Briggs or the psychotic women, all of whose personalities are entirely consistent with their characters throughout.
Not a homespun tale.
By Donna R. Copeland