Three women who have been driven mad by pioneer life are to be transported across the country by covered wagon by the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who in turn employs low-life drifter George Briggs to assist her.
Tommy Lee Jones is an Oscar-winning actor that has made that rare leap from acting to directing and done so successfully. Granted, he only has four directorial features to his credit, two of them being TV movies but he has worked with some of the industry’s biggest names, both in front of and behind the camera. Having also worked with Clint Eastwood on the 2000 sci-fi movie “Space Cowboys”, the quintessential figure who started acting and triumphantly transitioned to directing, he obviously learned from the best as “The Homesman” is a truly terrific western that has more in common with Eastwood’s slow-burning, character-driven movies “Unforgiven” and “Pale Rider” than his rambunctious outings such as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Paint your Wagon.”
In “The Homesman”, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a middle-aged woman originally from New York, lives on the Nebraska plains by herself. During the harsh winter, three local women slowly begin to show signs of insanity and their local church reverend Alfred Dowd (John Lithgow), proposes that one of their husbands escort the women to a church in Iowa that cares for the mentally ill. None of the husbands are willing to take the trek so Mary steps up and agrees to the laborious expedition. She is given a wagon that was specifically built to constrain the three women and sets off on her cross-country odyssey. Along the way, she encounters George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a scruffy, raggedy claim jumper who is sitting atop his horse with a noose around his neck.
He is in his predicament because he was caught using another man’s property as his own and pleads with her to save his life. Taking pity on him as he whimpers and whines, she reluctantly agrees and does so only on the condition that he accompany her on her excursion to Iowa. He complies and the two head off across the plains where they encounter Indians, would-be rapists, an assortment of inhospitable and unsavory characters and the brutal, merciless Winter weather. The movie is unhurried and takes its time telling the story. Hilary Swank gives a tenacious, unyielding performance as a strong, no-nonsense woman who is more than capable of taking care of herself but at the same time, during her quiet moments, yearns for the comfort and solace of a man. Any man.
Not an easy accomplishment to attain but Ms. Swank realizes it perfectly. Mr. Jones gives his best performance in years and I don’t say that lightly. With his Oscar-winning portrayal of Deputy Samuel Gerard in “The Fugitive”, Pete Perkins in “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” and countless other performances throughout his forty-year career, one could easily pick any one of them and claim them as his best but here, Mr. Jones is both understated and subdued, a characteristic that works well for him. When we first meet him, we feel compassion for him and at times, he is even comical but when the occasion calls for it, he transforms into a ruthless and savage killer, a man you wouldn’t like to have to go up against, in any capacity.
This aspect is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s William Munney in “Unforgiven.” We don’t find out until much later in the film, exactly what Munney was like as a younger man but when we do, we find ourselves riveted to our seats as we gradually ascertain exactly what kind of a monster he once was. With “The Homesman”, Jones goes one step further by not telling us anything about Briggs’ past, instead, it is left to our imagination and one can’t help but wonder if both he and Munney were a part of the same gang because of the sporadic brutality they inflict on those who are deserving of it. The Nebraska plains are both beautiful and merciless but unlike other westerns who paint their landscapes with majestic colors and stunning backdrops, here, it is cold and vicious.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (“Alexander”, “Argo”) never holds back from the inhumanity and cruelty of the remote wilderness and fills the frame with shadows and dimness to illustrate, with great effect, the desolation and solitude of a hell on earth. There is a large display of wonderful character actors, from the aforementioned John Lithgow to James Spader, Miranda Otto, Barry Corbin, Hailee Steinfeld and Meryl Streep and they each have substance and strength in their supporting roles. If you go into “The Homesman” expecting action galore like “Tombstone” or “Silverado”, you’ll be sorely disappointed but if you keep in mind, “Unforgiven” or even “Once Upon a Time in the West”, you’ll walk away from this movie with a much better appreciation for it.
In theaters November 28th