Tommy Lee Jones stars, directs and has co-written the screenplay for “The Homesman”, a movie adapted from the 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout. Set in the 1850s, it tells the story of a gold prospector who teams up with Hilary Swank’s forthright and independent frontierswoman to escort three mentally ill women across the Great Plains, to find help and rest in more civilised surroundings.
Hilary Swank is Mary Bee Cuddy, an educated 31 year old woman with a modest but thriving farm in Nebraska but who’s deemed to be too plain and too bossy to find herself a husband. In contrast to her charges, she is a survivor. She is strong and resourceful and hardworking. She ploughs her fields, tends to her livestock and tries to woo the eligible bachelors with her home cooking and business sense but to no avail. Yet, despite her successful farm and strong work ethic, she is lonely and maladroit. The local preacher Dowd (John Lithgow) confides in her the awful news that three frontier women have gone insane through the rigors and deprivation of life on the plains. He decides the only thing to be done is to pack them up and drive them back to Iowa, where a Methodist minister’s wife (Meryl Streep) has offered them hospice. They draw lots and Mary Bee ends up with the unenviable job. She agrees because it’s the right thing to do and also because no-one else will do it in her place.
She needs somebody to accompany her and as luck would have it, she comes across George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), who has been left hanging from a tree by a vigilante gang. She agrees to rescue him and cut him down on condition he helps her in the terrible journey, and she is careful to extract the promise before telling him the details. He’s not in much of a position to negotiate so he accepts and they set out on the long and dangerous trail, facing bandits, Native American tribes and worse. The three women are certainly tough company - one (Grace Gummer) has lost three children to diphtheria in quick succession; another (Miranda Otto) was driven to despair by the failure of the family farm and hysterically threw her newborn baby down an outhouse hole, while the third (Sonja Richter) lost her mother in the snow and spends her days writhing and screaming. What follows is her journey across a dangerous, barren world to the Missouri River, with only her self-involved driver George Briggs and the three deranged women to keep her company. From the outset, the unlikely pair get on one another's nerves and they are under no illusions as to the enormity of the task which will take over five weeks through the most hostile territory with risks of attacks from bandits and Indians. The journey will take over five weeks, through the winter and through hostile territory with possible attacks from bandits and Indians. However, things soften after a while and along they way there are some unexpected twists and turns.
Swank and Jones are a superb pairing – this is Swank’s meatiest role since Million Dollar Baby and she effectively handles it with dignity and charm. She is a commanding and fiercely individualistic woman who can meet men at every level. However, once the bewhiskered rascal Jones enters the picture, he quickly turns into the star of the show. His cantankerous Briggs as a boozy scallywag and troublemaker provides the ideal counterpoint to duty-bound Cuddy's more restrained demeanor. In what is both an amusing but yet heartfelt performance, his Briggs is amoral, has not a shred of trustworthiness or responsibility and is on the run from everything he has done in his life. This is in stark contrast to the self-sufficient and reliable Mary Bee. The rest of the characters are fine but the performances are understated. Cameos include Tim Blake Nelson as a knife-waving lunatic, James Spader as a cruel-hearted hotel owner, and Meryl Streep in a gentle, motherly role in the final act.
With “The Homesman”, Jones shows true storytelling grit and proves he remains a confident and accomplished director. He has produced an original and offbeat western which becomes increasingly engaging as the plot progresses. He deftly handles the shift in tone from comedy to sentiment to solemn to shock. “The Homesman” recalls the movie -“True Grit” - which also showcased a relationship between an ageing frontiersman and a younger woman and is an equally find portrait of such a relationship. While it won’t stay with you for weeks, it’s an enjoyable and very watchable movie.