“That’s all there is, there ain’t no more.”
Set during the pioneer era, The Homesman subverts the usual trajectory of westerns set in this time by instead focusing on a journey from what will eventually become Nebraska territory in the West to more Eastern Iowa, wherein defeat via the frontier is a primary concern, whether it be a defeat of the mind, body, soul, or all together. Director Tommy Lee Jones’s last theatrically released film was The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), a contemporary neo-western with shades of Sam Peckinpah in its flavour. The Homesman may have the set dressing of a more traditional, old-school genre entry, but this film, adapted from Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel, is much more offbeat than one might expect.
It’s 1855, and three women (Grace Gummer, Mirando Otto, Sonja Richter) apparently driven mad by pioneer life are to be transported across the country to a Methodist property in a small Iowa town where they can ideally receive better treatment in more established “civilisation”. Middle-aged farmer Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), dismayed with her lot in life after a recent marriage rejection (she is described as “too bossy and too damn plain,” and she views marriage as less of a romantic gesture and more of a mutual business venture), takes on the task of moving the women by covered wagon. During her departure, she bargains with and recruits a gun-slinging drifter and claim-jumper by the name of George Briggs (Jones) to aid with the dangerous obstacles they’ll inevitably face during the five week journey. Along the way they encounter some of the presumed threats (Native Americans, the harsh nature), as well as more unexpected sources of conflict, like Mary’s own increasingly erratic attitudes towards both George and their mission.
The Homesman thrives on the unexpected, from forays into comic material, shocking plot developments, and a feast of sudden horrors that come out of nowhere and are gone just as quickly. Jones’s crisp framing, with the aid of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, allows for these dark excursions and atrocities to approach actual transgression through their matter of fact depiction, avoiding sensationalised images where other directors may struggle to resist.
It’s a desperately sad tale, and Swank’s Mary is a heartbreaking figure. Much of the film is also powerful in its furious indictment of the torment that brings about the madness in the three wagon passengers, it almost exclusively coming about from mistreatment at the hands of men, whether through active abuse (one husband regularly raping his wife so as to get an heir) or dim-witted trivialisation of their trauma (see husband Jesse Plemons’s approach to wife Gummer after they lose three children).
A world of hurt can also be found in Jones’s eponymous, cantankerous reprobate. The film ends on a ‘light’ moment of defiance with his character, but it’s an act and attitude only possible through the experience of abject misery. In certain sequences of its final act, for reasons best left unspoiled, Jones’s film comes across as much of a rogue entity as the character he plays. It’s the weirdest western in quite some time, and is all the better for it.
— Josh Slater-Williams