Westerns are among the most male-centric of movie genres, and though the notion of the ‘revisionist’ western has been kicking around since the 1950s, there are still precious few that turn their focus onto the women of the period. The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones’ first big-screen venture behind the camera since his well-received The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada seeks to add to that number.
Unsurprisingly, in order to make a frontier woman the hero, it begins with her taking on what is nominally, a man’s job. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a woman from New York who now lives in Nebraska Territory. She farms her own land and is known for her strong riding ability and resourcefulness; however she has still failed to find a husband. After being rejected by her latest marital prospect, she volunteers for a mission to transport three mentally deranged women to a town where they can be properly treated. She is only able to opt in as one of the women’s husbands doesn’t want to draw for the job himself, but she has the support of the town.
The specifics of the women’s trauma are not clear, but the film suggests that their breakdowns are maybe just the result of having to live in such a harsh place at such a time. Jones introduces us to each woman in turn at their time of horror. One is acting possessed after her rape and mother’s death, one is a 19-year old wife who’s just lost 3 babies to diphtheria, and the other, in the most chilling moment of the film, casually tosses her own nursing baby into an outhouse toilet, all filmed in a startling single shot.
Like many modern westerns, The Homesman portrays the frontier as a relentlessly bleak place, a moral wasteland where living is hard enough by itself and anyone else you encounter will want to rob, rape or murder you. For such a grim setting, Jones still provides many an elegant backdrop, evoking some more classical western imagery at times, yet never romanticising the environment.
Before Cuddy leaves, she encounters George Briggs (Jones himself), an eclectic drunkard who’s at the end of a rope for claim-jumping. She agrees to rescue him on the condition that he accompany her for the journey, with little other option, he accepts. For an unusual western such as this, it’s probably deliberate that they are headed east, to Iowa.
It may have been Hilary Swank’s choices of roles that led to her somehow never making it to the A-list after each of her 2 Oscar wins, but she’s still a tremendous performer. Her role here is in some ways similar to her more famous work in Million Dollar Baby; a strong willed independent woman surviving in what’s typically a man’s world, but it’s just as good. I could easily see another Oscar nod headed her way if this film gets a little more attention. Tommy Lee Jones is equally good opposite her; a grizzled cowboy seems to be the type of role that he was born to play, yet he still excels at it. They make for an amiable pair who both develop as individuals and together as their journey goes on. Their relationship is the source of both comedy (in their early scenes), pathos, and dread – in one striking moment, Briggs goes to deflect some potential ambushers, he hands Cuddy a revolver before leaving, telling her to shoot the women then herself if he doesn’t succeed.
Surrounding them is an enormously impressive supporting cast; William Fichtner, John Lithgow, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, Jesse Plemons, Hailee Steinfeld, even Meryl Streep turns up. I was surprised at the number of famous names by the end of the opening credits. They all bring something different and important to the table though, and never just feel like a parade of cameos.
In its third act, The Homesman pulls a narrative twist that, while nothing absurd or outrageous, is truly shocking. At first I couldn’t quite believe it went in the direction it did but the more I’ve thought about it, the less out of place it’s seemed. After this the film admittedly goes on a little longer in wrapping up its story than it need to, but it’s not a major issue. Overall The Homesman is an admirably atypical take on the western, a reminder of both what a powerful actress Hilary Swank can be, and that Tommy Lee Jones should maybe get behind the camera a little more often.