The Nebraskan frontier is a resolve crushing hostile wilderness. Despite the veil of civility drapes over it in the 1800s it’s not a place for the faint of heart or mind.
When three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) are driven mad by their husbands or the harsh reality of pioneer life the local church’s solution is to transport them home. The independent Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers for the task and enlists Wiley old vagrant George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) for protection.
Director/co-writer/star of the film Tommy Lee Jones does a wonderful job of creating a space to project the fallible predominant view that women, unlike men, aren’t tough enough to endure this kind of rough country. From the beginning of the film we arrive at three women Arabella Sours (Gummer), Theoline Belknap (Otto) and Gro Svendsen (Richter) that have all arrived at an extreme level of insanity. Mr. Jones constructs horrifically dark echoes of the actions taken by their husbands in violence, sex and apathy that join that effectively join the dots to how we arrived to the women that Cuddy (Swank) and Briggs (Jones) care for. Out of context, their crazed behaviour feels like the filmmakers are adhering to an arcane version of women ill-equipped for frontier life. When you glimpse behind the curtain it’s both frightening and infuriating. Ms. Otto, Ms. Gummer and Ms. Richter have the gruelling task of wearing these insane exteriors that barely get to get to a glimpse of their former selves, other than in horrific flashbacks.
Author Glendon Swarthout’s source material is adapted by Mr. Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver and the unforgiving reality of the psychological torture of isolation in this brutal hostile landscape create the conditions for madness. Mr. Jones uses the oppressive sparse landscape of New Mexico (standing in for Nebraska) to constantly test Cuddy, Briggs and their temperamental cargo. On the frontier those you encounter are always dangerous.
Ms. Swank seems to be drawn to and cast for memorably tough and uncompromising female characters. She plays Cuddy with an independence and a wherewithal that’s vastly ahead of her time and station. Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross from True Grit and Mary Bee Cuddy are spiritual sisters, which Mr. Jones tips his hat to with a late cameo. She’s a woman desperate for purpose, and in her time that means a husband and a family. After failing time and again to land a suitor she sees the opportunity, normally reserved for a man, perfectly suited to ‘this’ woman; especially a woman that won’t take any further liberties with these damaged ladies. Ms. Swank is nothing short of devastating, both devastatingly suited to the role, but wholly committed to Cuddy’s emotionally wrenching trajectory.
Mr. Jones plays Briggs with cheek and abandon that keeps you on your toes hoping that he’s not going to take advantage of the situation. Briggs opportunistic scavenger exterior is gradually shorn away as he’s confronted with the plight of his partner and their flock.
The Homesman is a moving expose of the suffrage of isolation and piety disguising the horrors of pioneer life.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
Written by: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver (Screenplay) based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Barry Corbin, David Dencik, Jesse Plemons, William Fichtner, Evan Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep, David Dencik