Jour­ney’s end

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

The Homes­man, Western, rated R, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 3 chiles The ti­tle character of The Homes­man should not be George Briggs, played by Tommy Lee Jones (who co-wrote and di­rected the film), but Hi­lary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy. “You’re as good a man as any man abouts,” she is told. Mary Bee works her own spread, tends to her stock, feeds and cares for her neigh­bors, and has money in the bank. She is, by her own ac­count, a plain woman, and men find her bossy, which may ex­plain her sin­gle sta­tus in mid-19th-cen­tury Ne­braska Ter­ri­tory.

The wilder­ness has not been kind to three of Mary Bee’s neigh­bors, women who have suc­cumbed to vary­ing de­grees of mad­ness. They need to re­turn East, to the se­cu­rity and com­fort of their fam­i­lies — a five-week trek by wagon fraught with pos­si­ble dan­ger. No man takes up the chal­lenge. So Mary Bee does.

En­ter George Briggs, a low-level scoundrel. Mary Bee first en­coun­ters him with a noose around his neck, left to hang by vig­i­lantes. She saves him, and he agrees to take the jour­ney with her. This sets view­ers up for a typ­i­cal Western de­vice in which two peo­ple with op­pos­ing per­son­al­i­ties find them­selves tak­ing on a job that no­body else wants. The trav­el­ers face off against In­di­ans, would-be rapists, gun­men, and pro­gres­sive busi­ness­men. The odds may seem in­sur­mount­able, but bat­tling the cold wilds of Ne­braska has shaped the sur­vival skills of Mary Bee and George.

Jones worked with screen­writ­ers Kieran Fitzger­ald and Wes­ley A. Oliver to adapt Glen­don Swarthout’s 1988 novel, The Homes­man. He cast it almost per­fectly, and even the bit play­ers bring nu­ance and depth to their work — in­clud­ing a re­ally pointed study by James Spader as a try­ing-to-be-po­lite busi­ness­man.

Jones is the per­fect Western hero — des­per­ate, ob­serv­ing, pa­tient, and slow to reach for the draw. Swank comes through with an even sharper per­for­mance, por­tray­ing Mary Bee as a woman proud of her in­de­pen­dence and sadly aware of the price tag that comes with that. As the trail East gets thornier, her de­fenses break away, and she re­veals a vul­ner­a­ble woman whose lone­li­ness leads her to drop her in­hi­bi­tions and au­ton­omy. She and Briggs come to­gether to do what’s right for their charges. But the pic­ture’s disturbing tone — and even its dark hu­mor — tips you off that, some­where along the way, some­thing is go­ing to go wrong.

The Homes­man is an in­trigu­ing, haunt­ing movie with a few prob­lems. The ac­tresses play­ing the neigh­bors — Grace Gum­mer, Mi­randa Otto, and Sonja Richter — are not given much room to ex­plore their char­ac­ters. And the movie in­cludes some un­nec­es­sary flash­backs de­pict­ing the graphic man­ner in which they were de­feated by the el­e­ments. The Homes­man nonethe­less suc­ceeds in pay­ing homage to the pi­o­neers who shaped the land. Marco Bel­trami’s mu­si­cal score fits the film beau­ti­fully — del­i­cate, soft, and of­ten evok­ing a hope­ful­ness sea­soned with a melan­choly that sug­gests some peo­ple will never find their way home.

— Robert Nott

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