Tommy Lee Jones’s second feature as writer-director, The Homesman, is an unusual Western, less concerned with what a man’s gotta do than with what a man and woman might usefully accomplish together. The title may be gendered one way, but Jones here confounds expectations from the off, presenting us initially with a thumbnail sketch of one Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a single gal caught literally ploughing her own furrow in a small frontier community.
As in Jones’s previous The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, we’re soon left in no doubt that the American West was a tough place for minorities of any stripe or shade. Having established her self-sufficiency with her work in the fields, Ms. Cuddy plans a pleasant evening in with a male suitor, only for her practical proposal of marriage to be turned down flat. She’s too bossy, apparently.
Still, Mary Bee Cuddy has it comparatively easy. Across the plains, the unravelling Theoline (Miranda Otto) is led to toss her new-born child into the outhouse; another woman, Danish immigrant Gro (Sonia Richter), succumbs to visions of her late mother, winding up hogtied by the husband who’s repeatedly raped her in his desire for an heir; a third (Grace Gummer) is reduced to mute despondency after seeing her children ravaged by diphtheria, and left clutching a doll as a poor substitute.
In playing happy homesteaders, all these women have been driven out of their minds; society’s solution is to have them carted off to an asylum some distance away. With the menfolk otherwise engaged, the civic-minded Mary Bee volunteers to drive them, but it’s a big responsibility: she finds help, of a sort, in the form of George Briggs (Jones), a whiskery coot she spies hanging from a tree en route. He, too, finds Mary Bee somewhat bossy.
With the hysterics confined to the back of the wagon, The Homesman’s interest lies in the relationship between the two riding upfront. George is blunt, bluff, confrontational – virtues in the Old West – Mary Bee more considerate and compassionate; he shepherds his passengers as though they were any other freight, she talks to them, feeds them, regards them as God’s creatures. She leads by example: one way or another, she’ll soften George up, and – without him realising, or any strain on Jones’s part – transform him into a crusader for exactly those values she holds to.
Kevin Costner rode into similar territory ten years ago with his Open Range, a lovely, sincere yarn about the domestication of a cowboy; what Jones brings to this material is a Southern gent’s chivalry – he’s courteous, sometimes painterly, in the way his camera looks upon these women – and yet a gimlet eye for the West’s harshness: Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography never flinches from death or despair, but defines it against the natural beauty of the landscape, just as Jones weighs male brutality against the tolerance of the women.
As in Three Burials, there’s also evidence of a wicked, leavening sense of humour. Jones makes a fool of Briggs in a way the noble Costner probably couldn’t. He’s first observed being smoked out of a cabin, face blackened like a cartoon character; in moments of levity, he’s prone to hitching up his long johns and performing a ridiculous jig. It’s amazing any woman would give him the time of day – but that’s what’s great about women, the film fondly sighs: they do.
The Homesman is less expansive than Three Burials: its structure is largely episodic, and Jones misses a trick in not making the three madwomen anything more than an audience for the curious semi-courtship taking place before them; the actresses – Richter especially – give thoroughly committed performances, but the characters never emerge as personalities in their own right.
What it showcases is Jones’s ability to compile Westerns that might speak to contemporary audiences. Three Burials was a lucid contribution to the immigration debate; The Homesman has much to say about how the sexes still relate to one another. Swank, warmly nurturing, is every bit as crucial to this project, and we remember her struggles as George Briggs surely does: by chafing against the rugged masculine individualism common to this genre, Jones has offered an absorbing, touching model of collaboration.
(MovieMail, November 2014)
The Homesman screens on BBC2 tonight at 10pm.