There is something dauntlessly optimistic about westerns. Even in their vilest, most cynical backdrops, the feeling of rejuvenation that comes with a man on his horse is intoxicating. He’s reinventing himself with nothing to his back but big sky and big country.
Perhaps that is why The Homesman is not a western—not really. To be sure, the new Tommy Lee Jones directed opus is certainly set in the west, the Nebraska territories to be exact, and it is most definitely a 19th century yarn with its vaguely 1850s timeline. However, in addition to taking place before the Civil War, the true marker that The Homesman stands apart from its genre (at least in intention) is its focus on the hardship of women of the frontier. In the hands of Jones, and his source material novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout, there is nothing more desperate and monotonous than the lives of these unsung heroines of hard living. Sadly, they still remain fairly unsung by the end of this muted and laborious love letter.
In an attempt to craft the anti-western, Jones, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, nobly attempts to showcase the true cruelty towards the feminine in a culture as unforgiving as it is unpopulated. And on that front, The Homesman sows its seeds deep. They’re also then brought to fruition by a terrific cast, which includes Hilary Swank, Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter, and some fun cameo work by John Lithgow, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and Hailee Steinfeld, among others. But perhaps like a mirror to its narrative, this is no place for the feminine (as according to Swarthout and Jones), and the end result can only be something as flat as its Nebraskan landscapes; pretty to look at but ultimately empty.
The Homesman is primarily the tale of Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank), a woman of relatively good means and property living on the edge of Nebraska. As a child raised of some implied influence from back east, she aches as much for the sounds of true musicality that comes with pianos, as her greatest desire: that of a man to call her very own. Throughout the movie, we are told of Mary Bee Cuddy’s “plainness,” which is piled on perhaps a bit too thick, but as such, she cannot even find a lover, even when she has wealth, intelligence, and property to offer on the outskirts of society.
Thus when three women who did find their supposed true loves all lose their minds to varying levels of hardship—child loss, dirt floor simplicities, and rapist husbands—Mary Bee is the first and only citizen of the town’s congregation to volunteer transporting these poor, tormented souls across the Nebraskan plains to the civilization of Iowa where a minister and his wife (Streep) have offered to care for these mentally ill ladies. Their husbands are only to happy to see them go, and truthfully, so is Mary Bee, as it is her first chance to prove her worth, if only to George Briggs (Jones), a drifter type that she saves from a vigilante’s hanging rope in exchange for his reluctant aid on the trek to Iowa. Along the way, they will meet Native Americans, far worse drifters than George Brigg’s bombastic drunkenness, and one very fun James Spader in the role of a double-talking Irish entrepreneur who has come to Nebraska to build a town.
The Homesman is a beautifully stoic film to look at that finds its quiet resolve in its decidedly unquiet characters. Swank brings a whispering uneasiness in her performance that looks like she is ready to crawl out of her own skin, never mind those form-restricting dresses that appear so unnecessary on horseback. Jones, meanwhile, has the best role in the movie. He plays George Briggs as thundering in his griping about almost being hanged as he is boisterous over Mary Bee Cuddy’s incessant need to name all of her animals, be they horses or donkeys. The only time he quiets up is when he is forced into a role of action that is sold by a glint in Jones’ eye, hinting he still loves playing rough hombres on the trail after all these years, even if the 68-year-old actor’s surprising ability to throttle men half his age seems a little less authentic.
Unfortunately, the journey of these two people feels more archetypal than it does character-driven, leaving both to make surprising decisions dictated by the plot and not established persona. Mary Bee Cuddy is of special concern, because her back story as to how she ended up in her current predicament is constantly teased, but never fully explored, leaving her final decisions with an air of banality. Gummer, Otto, and Richter are likewise giving intriguing turns as the mentally unstable women left in Cuddy and Briggs’ charge, but other than the occasional and disjointed flashback, which frontloads the first 15 minutes of the picture, we never spend enough time with any of them to truly appreciate their individual tragedies, nor care what their destiny is past their supposed Iowan sanctuary.
By the time The Homesman reaches Iowa, there is a curious exchange between Briggs and the young daughter of an innkeeper played by Steinfeld. He notices that she is not wearing any shoes, and heartbroken by such careless frivolity (at least in Briggs’ eyes), he buys her a pair of boots with a warning not to go west, for there is only heartbreak for women riding off on stories of frontier romance. It is a disquieting and sorrowfully real idea that’s too often glossed over in fiction. But despite the pristine performances stating this universal truth, it’s rarely felt in the film’s 122-minute grazing run time. Rather, The Homesman finds its biggest joys in those of an old drunkard hollering into the night, one whiskey-soaked regret at the time. Amusing this may be, yet our minds are still left with those four mysterious women whose affliction and femininity is nowhere to be found in this ride’s most lingering images before the sunset.