“The Homesman” Drifts Along the Frontier Trail


The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, 2014)

The greatest asset in The Homesman – the second theatrical feature directed by actor Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) – is also its greatest weakness. Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby), plays Mary Bee Cuddy – an independent frontier woman in the Nebraska Territory in the 1850s – with such energy and commitment that she shines from within, making her luminous to behold. In other words, it is a typically magnificent Swank performance. The problem is that everyone else in the movie keeps lamenting how plain and bossy she is, and the disconnect between what the camera sees and what the characters see is jarring. Even when she essentially throws herself upon the men in the movie, desperate for love (or, at the very least, connection), they reject her. I had always thought that the settlers who populated the American West liked their women strong (with nice, child-bearing hips!). According to this movie, that is not the case, and it literally drives the women crazy.

Cuddy – alone on a farm that she owns, with no man and no family – volunteers to transport the wives of three men in her town back East. These poor women have gone insane, for different reasons: one has lost her children; another, her mother; the third, to be honest, I cannot remember the reason. It’s not important. What is important is that the men in their lives have either abused them or been unable to provide them what they need – emotionally, spiritually, physically – to survive in the barren landscape they inhabit. Adrift and friendless, they need someone to step up and escort them back to a more civilized place, and that someone is Cuddy. But she can’t do it alone, and on her way home one day she finds a drifter, George Briggs (Jones), seated on his horse with a rope around his neck. She rescues him and tells him he must help her make the trip to Missouri. He’s not keen on the idea, but since he gave his word, he does, indeed, go along for the ride.

This is a movie defined by its oddness – in ways both good and bad. Though mostly chronological in its storytelling, it occasionally digresses from the narrative to show us a subjective memory or dream, without explanation. At times elliptical – days pass without us realizing it at first – the film at other times succumbs to excessive expositional dialogue. I haven’t read the source novel of the same name, by Glendon Swarthout, so I don’t know how much of the aesthetic strangeness of the movie comes from Jones or the original author. Still, though messy and not always coherent – Cuddy’s climactic action is untrue to her character, and for some reason James Spader (“The Blacklist) shows up in the final third as an Irish gangster – The Homesman is usually interesting to watch, largely thanks to Swank and Jones, who fill the screen with their electrifying performances. As a feminist revisionist take on Westerns – deconstructing male behavior and revealing it for the selfish and misogynist thing that it can be – the film is fairly effective. As a gripping and consistent narrative, it is less so. I did love the ending, though, which is perfect for a crazy movie like this: Briggs, his one selfless act completed, dances, drunk, on a river barge, reverting back to the behavior that got him in trouble in the first place.

Still, if you want to see a better recent Western about the triumph of the female spirit, I recommend watching Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 Meek’s Cutoff. Until then, The Homesman may or may not do, depending on your taste. Jones’s first film was far more successful, but this one, flaws and all, is not without merit.

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