Wide, endless plains are usual sights in the Western movie, and “The Homesman” instantly drew my attention with the beauty of its vast, barren landscapes which usually have nothing but plain and sky above it. This is a severe world where civilization has not fully advanced into yet, and it goes without saying that life is indeed hard for men in the Wild West era of the 19th century – and harder for women who have far more limited choices than men.
When we meet Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) during the opening scene, she is working alone in her own farm located in the middle of a wide plain area of Nebraska. Although the movie never explains how an educated woman like her came alone to this remote frontier area from her hometown in New York state, but Swank’s nuanced low-key performance tells everything we need to know about her character even though she does not say a lot about her past. It is apparent that she is a diligent and faithful Christian woman who does not give up easily with her strong belief, and we sense that she has been taking care of herself and her farm well for herself.
However, she does not want to get old alone, so she hopes to get married someday, but she has been so far unlucky in that aspect. When Cuddy is visited by her neighbor Bob Giffen (Evan Jones), she invites him to have a dinner with her, and then she approaches to him in a rather naive and clumsy way around the end of their dinner, but Giffen flatly breaks the mood as callously, and cruelly, reminding her again of why she has not been desired much by him or any other guys who passed by her before. She does not look attractive to them while already being over 30 (30 was old age during that era), and, above all, men do not want to marry someone who is “too bossy” like her.
While Cuddy is driven to more despair by this hurtful moment, we see three married women in her frontier town gone insane for their respective reasons. They are all broken down by the hardships of their difficult frontier life one way or another, and their husbands do not know what to do with their wives except sending them together to a town in Iowa, where they might be taken care of a little more properly.
Of course, someone in the town should escort them to Iowa, but the husbands are reluctant to volunteer for that job, because they are busy with their works, and journeying across plains to Iowa can be difficult and dangerous not only because of these unstable women but also the possible dangers lurking around the route. After one of them cowardly walks out of the scene just because he does not want to be picked at all, Cuddy boldly volunteers to fill the empty place instead when it is decided that they should decide on their matter through drawing lots, and, unfortunately, she is picked as the one who will do the job.
At least, she happens to encounter someone who can accompany and help her during her journey to Iowa. When she comes across George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), this grumpy claim-jumper has been left alone to be hanged sooner or later while being tied on his horse, and, after saving him from his danger, she hires him although he does not look that trustworthy. They pick up their three mad women to be escorted one by one as they go around each of these women’s homes, and they soon embark on their journey with a sincere blessing from the town pastor.
As it takes a considerable amount of time in its set-up part, the movie patiently moves along with its main characters in its calm, leisurely pace, and, mainly thanks to the cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, we are treated with many barren but fabulous wide shots of landscapes which sometimes look endless and hopeless on the screen. Many scenes in the film are notable for their classical style in scene composition, and the strict, precise mise-en-scene in some of them effectively conveys the feeling of isolation and suffocation inside Cuddy, who begins to feel more exhausted and desolated than ever as she keeps moving on with Briggs and others in her journey. She is surely tough and resilient, but the crazy women under her charge gradually remind her of what has been eating her inside, and we slowly begin to wonder whether the motive behind her decision to participate in that draw was more than an ethical choice from the beginning.
As she and Briggs struggle along with each other for getting their job done, Briggs turns out to be more dependable than expected while revealing some soft sides. Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay based on Glendon Swarthout’s novel, effortlessly imbues the role with his screen persona virtually ready for Western films. Even when he looks a bit goofy, you can feel many years of experiences from his shabby, wrinkled appearance along with some sense of decency, and you can see that Cuddy saw a right man for the job despite their rather silly awkward first meeting.
Now it sounds like a typical adventure romance a la “The African Queen” (1951), but the movie sticks to its somber and desolate tone. As getting to know a bit about Briggs, Cuddy begins to consider Briggs as her potential spouse, but it does not take much time for us to see that life of settlement is the last thing Briggs can imagine. There is a crucial scene in which Cuddy attempts something of which she has probably never dreamed as a devout Puritan woman, and what happens after that leads to a sudden plot turn which also works with devastating dramatic effects to hover around the rest of the film.
Jones assembles an impressive array of performers around him and his co-star, and they ably fill their archetype roles. While they are pushed to the background along the progress of the story, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter hold their places as miserable women hopelessly stuck in each own madness, and David Dencik, William Fichtner, and Jesse Plemons are also good as their husbands. While Tim Blake Nelson has one brief but memorable scene, James Spader is utterly despicable as a guy who surely deserves what he gets in the end, and John Lithgow, Hailee Steinfeld and Meryl Streep function as several small bright spots along the story.
“The Homesman” is the second film directed by Jones, who previously made a wonderful debut with “The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada” (2005). That movie was an untypical Western film which delivered a number of powerful and poetic moments in its unexpected ways, and “The Homesman” is also an interesting untypical Western film with feministic ideas to reflect on later. I think its last act could have been shortened a bit, but that does not hurt much its sad, haunting story on the whole, and I was involved in its authentic mood as caring about its main characters’ struggle. They are good people with flaws, and you may agree with me that they deserve better, but, alas, the world goes on as usual without caring much. So it goes, but it is still sad indeed.