Published Nov 20, 2014Like most actor/directors, Tommy Lee Jones focuses on the performances and the nuance of quiet reflection when he's behind the camera. It's a natural preoccupation for an actor, being inclined to focus on the facet of filmmaking that they feel is lacking. In some cases, this tactic works quite admirably, particularly if the story is ostensibly a filmed play expanding on bigger issues beyond the surface narrative.
Jones, despite using this relaxed, observant style throughout most of The Homesman's runtime, also has an interest in the western mythology. This seeming tale of feminine plight in American pioneer times — a less exact or focused Meek's Cutoff, in a way — is, much like Jones' surprisingly adept 2005 film, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, an anti-western; a deconstruction of that Walt Whitman vision of the world, pointing out present day hypocrisies that have been inherent from the outset.
Initially, The Homesman presents as a tale of female subjugation. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a determined, overly pious (and vulnerable) spinster tries desperately to find a husband to help maintain and cultivate the modest crop of land she's earned on her own. Though strong and smart enough to build a home and a small accumulation of wealth independently, she's imposed upon by the need to secure a caregiver: a man to protect her from potential outlaws, help her work the land and to give her a child, thus giving her identity and meaning (as framed by the times).
Swank's depiction of Mary is spot-on. She's rigid in her beliefs and appears to be tough-as-nails on the surface, confidently barking orders at the men around her despite being deeply wounded beneath the surface. Her self-esteem is fragile, almost non-existent, making her occasional breaks from stoicism and strength heartbreaking as she pleads her case for marriage to men that have no interest in a plain older woman with strong opinions. This character make-up suggests that her eventual expedition to transport three mad women — all wives brought to the rural country landscape by farmers for the purpose of breeding — across the country via wagon to return them like faulty merchandise is a humble journey of empowerment.
But, in one of many shifts in The Homesman's narrative, it quickly becomes clear that this isn't all that's going on here. After Cuddy saves the life of criminal drifter George Briggs (Jones), she enlists his service in transporting the three women — who never demonstrate any signs of improving — across the country, which, oddly enough, turns into a series of sticky situations that reveal Briggs' reluctant tendency towards awkward heroism. In a way, not indulging our modernist tendency to give false hope to women that have been stripped of dignity and potential in a landscape that benefits only male acquisition and hierarchical power is commendable. Not placating the audience with faux-feminism or creating unlikely situations to show how strong women can be when they come together is a very realist, albeit depressing, decision. What's less commendable is Jones' need to hijack the story to make it one about male redemption, or lack thereof (although, to be fair, it's present in the source novel as well).
Once the big twist plays out (one that really was quite surprising and ballsy), The Homesman becomes quite schmaltzy, despite making some rather telling observations about the vulgarity of class system divisions. It's really a shame that Jones decides to sentimentalize the final act, especially considering how effectively the first two-thirds of the film play out, having a hard, classical western edge with occasional moments of telling human truths. Still, despite this somewhat indulgent, albeit thematically clever turn of events, this quiet drama is quite effective in generating thought and reflection. It also features yet another surprisingly layered and well-considered performance from Hilary Swank, who manages to pop up every few years and remind us why she keeps winning Oscars.