The Homesman Review
Tommy Lee Jones’ second theatrical feature as director and star, following 2005’s The Three Burials of Melguiades Estrada, sees the Texan actor take his first proper bite of the western genre. While no one could deny calling Three Burials a western, at least from a stylistic and thematic point of view, it did however have a contemporary setting, which makes The Homesman Jones’ first real foray into the Wild West.
Hilary Swank also stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a lonely, God fearing farmer subjected to a desolate life in the bleak open plains of Nebraska. Two things are discovered about her early on: that she originally came out west from New York and that men consider her too ‘bossy and plain’ for marriage. The film’s interesting premise then sees Cuddy tasked, after unfavourably drawing the short straw, with single-handedly transporting three women from their isolated territory east towards the more prosperous Iowa. The catch is that all three women have recently gone insane and are being sent to a mental asylum by their families who can’t cope anymore.
Before she sets off, Cuddy comes across George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a somewhat mysterious vagrant drifter who has been left hanging between a rope and his horse by a bunch of local vigilantes. She spares his life only on the condition that he accompany him on the journey for which she will also pay him 300 dollars on their return. He begrudgingly agrees to be her companion for what will be 5 weeks of hard trekking across dangerous country with the most precarious of cargo.
Jones has managed to craft a very well told story, which imposes many questions on the whole western genre itself. It is curious that for a once staggeringly prolific genre, the western only makes interesting or worthwhile viewing these days when it offers commentary on itself. For years, and predominantly from the 1930s to the 1960s, Hollywood proliferated countless myths about life in the wild west, many of which have recently been debunked with the likes of Kevin Costner’s ‘Dances With Wolves’ and Clint Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’.
Jones has now made his assured offering of real life in the old west; which is a bleak depiction of the sheer hopelessness and horror of pioneer life. Far from A Little House on the Prairie, these women have been driven crazy by a much harsher existence involving Typhoid and the death of children and livestock, not to mention the bleak isolation. Their journey eastward becomes an almost symbolic action of salvation for them as they are taken closer to the more ‘civilised’ Missouri. Later in the film, there is an interesting cameo from James Spader as a prospector who refuses to help the desperate travellers in a scene that highlights the other ugly side of enterprise and progress.
Other elements of the traditional western are also challenged, such as violence and the notion of masculinity. Some have called this a ‘feminist western’. There is definitely some interesting questions raised as to the role of women and the control/effect they have over men here. As such, Jones is not afraid to play a character far from the realms of the traditional western hero. His George Briggs is a flawed character, with a propensity for weakness, drink and buffoonery. But he also has that quiet streak of goodness and strength which is inherent in us all.
Similarly, with Cuddy, Hilary Swank manages to deliver a finely nuanced performance, one which bristles with a devotion to her faith, offset by a desperation to end her life of loneliness. This is played off nicely against Jones’ hard edged veneer and the two have great chemistry together. However, it is not terribly original as their characters’ dynamic has a very strong resemblance to that of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn from The African Queen (1951), not to mention John Wayne and Hepburn from Rooster Cogburn, the 1974 sequel to True Grit. Like those earlier titles, The Homesman pits together a strong, Christian woman with a flawed and weak minded boozehound, who will be inspired by the woman’s strength of character and change his ways.
The film has been described by some as the ‘best western since Unforgiven’. It is no way as gritty or subversive, but it has enough going for it to warrant a viewing, especially if you are a genuine fan of the genre. It does seem like the kind of western Clint Eastwood would make today if he hadn’t said farewell to the genre twenty two years ago. Still, Tommy Lee Jones is a worthy successor and considering his next project in the pipeline as director and star is a remake of the 1972 John Wayne classic, The Cowboys, he seems best placed to not only keep the genre alive but also, in regards to 'The Homesman', take it into interesting new directions.