DIR: Tommy Lee Jones • WRI: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald,Wesley A. Oliver • PRO: Luc Besson, Peter Brant, Brian Kennedy • DOP: Rodrigo Prieto • ED: Roberto Silvi • DES: Merideth Boswell • MUS: Marco Beltrami • CAST: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Meryl Streep
Even the most powerful nations have their beginnings in crushing hardship. For the pioneers who migrated west during the fever grip of Manifest Destiny in the 1800s this hardship was a daily reality. However, life was harder for no one more than the women of the prairie. Tommy Lee Jones’ adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s novel delivers an eloquent, if at times slightly skewed, insight into the mind-set of a people living on the edge of civilisation.
The story follows the strangely single Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) as she enrols a wandering claim-jumper supposedly called George Briggs (Jones) into her mission to escort three mentally unstable women back across the Missouri River to their families back east. We learn that the fragile state of the three women was incurred through means beyond their control; one woman killed her baby after her husband’s inadequacies as a farmer caused all their livestock to die, another was driven insane from her husband’s constant sexual abuse and mistreatment of her own mother and the youngest woman lost all three of her children to diphtheria within days of another. Enough to drive anyone mad.
The plains of Nebraska are depicted as harsh, ruthless and seemingly inhospitable to the livelihoods the pioneers want so badly to reap from its land. Jones uses a wide angle lens to its best advantage in capturing the immense vastness of the landscape and the contrastingly pitiful homesteads of those who live in it. There is no beauty to be had here, no trees, no flowers, and no shade. One shot of this wilderness and the audience wonders why anyone reckoned it was worth leaving everything behind to pursue a life in such emptiness. Nonetheless Cuddy endures the hard work pioneer life presents with a hardy can-do attitude despite her unmarried status. Cuddy’s age (she’s only 31 but positively over the hill by 1800s standards) and plainness, plus her assertiveness, means she can no longer afford to perceive marriage as a gesture of romance so much as a practical business contract.
After being shot down by a potential suitor for being too ‘bossy’ (a term only ever applied to women I can’t help but notice) Cuddy finds herself once more facing a life of loneliness. When she learns that three local women must be taken back to Iowa to salvage what’s left of their sanity – a five-week journey – Cuddy’s compassion and ethical code prompt her to volunteer. Her still burning desire for a partner despite being faced with the potentially disastrous outcome in the form of these three women speaks volumes of a society where a woman is only truly defined by the man she shares her bed with. Swank’s performance is impactful yet surprisingly subtle. There’s an undoubtable strength about the character balanced only by her vulnerability, which Swank manages to convey convincingly. While Cuddy’s idealism is what drives her to help her fellow womankind it also poses a threat to her own sanity. Idealism has no place in the brutal life of the pioneers.
After trying to claim the land of an out-of-town local, Briggs finds himself the victim of a lynching mob. Left under a tree with a noose around his neck and a horse between his legs, Briggs is eventually cut down by Cuddy who only agrees to save him if he promises to aid her on her long journey. With death by hanging being the only alternative, Briggs gratefully agrees. Briggs is an unusual ‘hero’ for a Western. In most ways he ticks all the right boxes for the classical cowboy archetype; he’s a wanderer, an outsider who doesn’t wish to assimilate into a community, plays by his own rules and he is, needless to say, very fond of violence. However, what Briggs ultimately lacks is any sort of depth or internal conflict. He’s not out to save anyone or to avenge anyone. He just wants his money and his whiskey and he’s pretty much satisfied. Briggs is, in a word, pathetic. This description may make him sound like an awful character to have as a film’s protagonist yet Jones somehow makes him endearing. He swings from hilarity to dourness in the blink of an eye. We want him to learn something from his experience, to come out of it a different man. A shocking twist about three quarters into the film initially seems like it could be a catalyst for his transformation but as to whether he actually does change or not by the film’s end is up to the individual’s interpretation. It’s a skilful performance from Jones, riddled with the blurry lines and hypocrisies that make up the human condition.
Jones also proves himself as a capable director with this film. There’s a poetic, almost dreamlike, quality to the film both in its tone and visual style. It does suffer from some uneven dedication of time however. Gummer, Otto and Richter are superb as the women that sanity abandoned. With little to no dialogue their anguish and distress is conveyed perfectly. One only wishes that a little more time was dedicated to showing exactly why these women went insane in the first place. Instead, we’re only treated to the occasional cutaway flashback which serves only to give us the bare bones of their story. There was an opportunity here to really examine the life of the average woman in this specific setting in this specific historical period and Jones lets it slip woefully by.
For what it is, The Homesman serves as a not so idealistic portrayal of an emerging nation and a people attempting to find their home in its vast landscape. Thoughtful performances throughout and with a strong visual aesthetic, this film doesn’t quite live up to its potential but still manages to hold strong. Definitely worth a watch.
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Homesman is released 21st November 2014