Published on December 18th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
Tommy Lee Jones is quietly directing westerns, bringing the classic genre into the 21st century; The Homesman explores mental illness and feminism on the frontier.
Living on the prairie, we often mythologize and romanticize our pioneering days as a time where brave souls worked hard, building not only a life, but creating the enduring spirit of perseverance for future generations. After all, living on a dirt farm in the middle of nowhere in the late 1800s, where winter comes eight months of the year and can hit minus 40 with ease, is no easy task. But where we prop up those that endured it, we also tend to sweep under the carpet the ones who cracked under the pressure.
In The Homesman, it’s three wives who were brought to the American frontier in Nebraska Territory that feel the brunt, having gone insane for various reasons. One woman loses all three of her children to diphtheria, one kills her own child, and one is raped and then watches her mother die. These were women who were most likely convinced of the promise of the frontier as a place where they could raise a family and make a living. They were not prepared for the harsh conditions and the dark side of humanity that can often fester where the prying eyes of the law don’t often tread. Let’s just say the movie starts out with some bleak pioneer shit going on.
Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a 31-year old spinster who is operating successfully on the frontier, but is growing depressed at not finding a mate to share her life and hardships with. She is rejected by several men, constantly being told that she’s ‘bossy,’ and ‘plain.’ When the town Reverend (John Lithgow) decides that one of the husbands should take all three of the insane women back to society, it is believed that none of them are good choices for the trek for various reasons. Cuddy, partially out of the goodness in her and partially because she craves an adventure, decides to take this task on. Shortly after this, she saves the life of a claim jumper named George Briggs, who agrees to help her on her task (for the promise of money, of course), and the two set out across the expanse with a wagon full of crazy.
Briggs is played by Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay for The Homesman, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout. I was attracted to this movie based on the strength of Jones’ previous directorial effort, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a 2005 modern western and an excellent film.
The Homesman isn’t as strong as Melquiades Estrada, though it’s worth watching in its own right. It suffers from a sitcomy set up, especially when Briggs’ bumbly cowpoke enters the picture, in what can only be described as a ‘the judge says you’ve gotta be her butler’ plot, capped off with some Odd Couple shenanigans as the straight-laced Cuddy/Felix butts heads with the scruffy Briggs/Oscar. The film also has some problems establishing tone — we go from rape scenes to straight comedy, from bleak reality to schmaltz. It’s often as bumpy as a wagon ride across the prairie.
Swank, who I could usually take or leave, is very good here, but some of her scenes are undercut by the tonal issues the film has. Jones is his usual grumpy old man self, and you can keep your eyes peeled for James Spader, Meryl Streep, and a few more familiar faces. As a side note, one of the mentally ill pioneer women is played by Grace Gummer (The Newsroom), who also happens to be Meryl Streep’s daughter.
On the positive side, there are some great twists and turns, and the movie tackles some engrossing characters on their not-quite-It Happened One Night road movie. It did give me pause to think about modern apocalypse/zombie movies; they’re all just dressed up westerns, where you’ll run into all manner of character, good and bad, that are doing what they need to (or want to) to get by in a lawless land.
Though a movie made by a man, The Homesman also tries to show this life through the eyes of the female persuasion, which works to some degree and perhaps falls a bit flat in others. Cuddy is a good female character, conflicted for drama’s sake, but also strong without just being a male character written as a woman. She has success, but still feels the stigma that society places on women to be married and be a good woman to some man.
The movie is also showing us a side that we don’t often see from the female point of view, let alone depicted so bluntly. Some might argue that the set up itself, that three delicate women couldn’t handle the prairie the way the men did, isn’t exactly striking blows for feminism. Perhaps Jones wasn’t overly concerned with the politics of it though, so much as he was with telling the story. Either way, it makes you think about such things, without really hammering on any particular themes as such, so I suppose that subtly is a good thing.
Like I said, The Homesman is worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of westerns with more modern sensibilities that stand apart from the whitewashed older films in the genre. While I did have problems with the movie, it moves along fast enough and tells an entertaining enough story. And perhaps it adds some insight to what our prairie forebears went through in carving out the interiors of Canada and The United States.