As with his 2005 neo-western The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, more than half of the running time of Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman is filled with the journey undertaken by its principle characters, played here by the director and Hilary Swank. They’re a mis-matched odd couple, of sorts, and the perilous route they take runs from a tiny Nebraska settlement to a church in neighbouring Iowa. Their job? To transport three local women who have all (rather implausibly, it must be said) become insane within a short period of time; one having lost three children to diphtheria, one having killed her own child and the other having been repeatedly raped by her husband before suffering a breakdown in the wake of her mother’s death. The grim message regarding the hardships faced by women in the 1850s midwest couldn’t be clearer: existing was a struggle, while taking a husband or owning land offered no guarantees and little in the way of extra security.
Despite this, when we first meet Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy, an ex-schoolteacher from New York who has moved west in search of opportunity, she is asking a local man to marry her. He bluntly turns her down, mentioning her plain looks and dumbly mistaking her independent spirit for a ‘bossy nature’. It becomes ever more apparent that most of the male characters in this film have little appreciation for strong-minded, intelligent women, and Cuddy is later rejected in a similar fashion by Jones’ grizzled claim jumper Briggs, a man she has previously saved from a lynching; Briggs also comments negatively on Cuddy’s appearance at one point, seemingly oblivious to the state of his own craggy mush, which has more lines on it than Bart Simpson’s blackboard and more whiskers than the cast of Top Cat. Her desire to marry (and perhaps to have children) stands in stark contrast to his indifference, and it’s interesting to note that she doesn’t change her mind despite spending weeks in the company of her travelling companions, all of whom have been abandoned by their husbands. Jones occasionally plays on the absence of union in the film by separating the sexes; his opening credits slowly list the actors’ names in male/female pairs, for example, with women on one side of the screen, men on the other, and a big gap in between.
Cuddy, Briggs and the women they are transporting make for an unusual party, and The Homesman presents itself, initially at least, as an alternative to the male-centric western norm. During their journey the party stands out amid the male-dominated plains and settlements, perhaps seen as an easy target, and they only meet other men along the way, all of whom pose some sort of threat to their safety: a group of Native Americans, a disingenuous hotelier played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson’s thief, and so on. For long periods as they move from one of these encounters to the next it seems as though Swank’s character is the only one with enough mental toughness and wherewithal to make it to Iowa and back unscathed, but we know her persona is partly a necessary exterior bluff, and that she harbours self-doubt while covering up her feeling of loneliness.
We’ve moved on from the days of strong women being ‘tamed’ in westerns, bent over the likes of John Wayne’s knee for a spanking, but even today it’s rare to find a film in this defiantly unfashionable genre that has an out-and-out female lead. As such there’s some truth in Swank’s claim that The Homesman is a feminist film, despite the fact that its women are only seen as being successful if they can do the job of a man (‘You’re as good a man as any man hereabouts’ John Lithgow’s priest tells Mary Bee when she volunteers for the journey), and it’s a shame when the focus jumps unequivocally to Jones’ character, even though presumably the screenwriters were following the story set out in Glendon Swarthout’s original novel. By the end the film carries a rather bleak, depressing message about women in the old west; the final scene encapsulates earlier suggestions that men didn’t give two shits about those who settled the land by their side while also positing, somewhat sadly, that kindness towards the plight of others was not rewarded or respected in any way.
The Homesman is a solidly-crafted western, and its most striking moments tend to involve the three insane patients being transported across the plains: there’s a piercing shriek that Jones refuses to cut away from; a shot of one of the women self-harming in a detatched-but-vaguely-curious way; and a scene in which the same woman, tied up, repeatedly kicks another in the face. It also contains fine cinematography; the ever-excellent Rodrigo Prieto captures some beautiful images of horses and wagons travelling on the horizon, often silhouetted against the sunset, which foreshadow a later scene filled with hellfire and retribution. The Homesman certainly looks good, and it has an impressive cast, but it’s a weird mix of female-centric progression and male-centric traditionalism: for all its focus on an independent, strong female lead character we’re very much back to the status quo by the end credits. Regardless, it’s a weighty and involving piece of filmmaking.
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones.
Written by: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley Oliver.
Starring: Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, John Lithgow, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Jesse Plemons, Tim Blake Nelson, Meryl Streep, William Fichtner.
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto.
Editing: Roberto Silvi.
Music: Marco Beltrami.
Running Time: 122 minutes.