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