Every so often someone makes a movie deromanticizing the Western. The Homesman is Tommy Lee Jones' directorial take on the genre, with a screenplay written by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Jones also stars in the film, along with Hilary Swank, who should land a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance. John Lithgow, James Spader and Meryl Streep also make appearances. The three big-league actors are only onscreen briefly, which makes me wonder how much was cut from the production.
Jones' directorial debut was 2005's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a brutal tale with a wicked sense of humor set in the border area between Texas and Mexico in contemporary times. The Homesman is considerably more downbeat. It reminds us repeatedly of how fragile civilization was in the Old West. People were eager to erect enough buildings to be able to call the results a town, which sounds relatively safe.
Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) lives outside of town, separated from the facade of community. She's sorely alone, but can't land a man. We witness one of her awkward attempts – she tries to negotiate a marriage with a fellow, only to be informed that she is too plain and too bossy.
I was reminded of an episode of The Office where the staff debated whether Hilary Swank was "hot or not." Everyone acknowledged that she was talented, probably a fine person, and that she could make herself look beautiful when she wanted, but still they argued on whether she really was sexy. Since Boys Don't Cry, Swank has been associated with appearances, traits and occupations associated with traditional masculinity.
And so it continues here. Three local women have gone crazy and need to be taken to Iowa to be tended to in a more kindly environment. The menfolk won't step forward, so Cuddy takes on the task. With the suffering women confined to an altogether too small carriage, she heads away from any pretense of security.
Shorty after she encounters a grizzled fellow wearing only his long johns, sitting precariously atop a horse. There's a noose around the man's neck tethered to a tree branch above. Cuddy works out a deal with the condemned rascal, whose name is George Briggs (Jones). She'll free him, but he must help her get the women safely off the plains. And with that The Homesman turns into a road movie without a road. Briggs is ornery as hell, while Cuddy is rigid in her ways. They squabble. They encounter a group of Indians. And so on.
The film has been hailed as a bold look at the challenges, indignities and barriers faced by women. Some of that is certainly addressed, but please note that the movie is named The Homesman. Yes, the term refers to the person taking the mentally ill women home, but the fact is that Briggs gets more screen time that Cuddy. Too bad, as the production works better when focused on Swank than when Jones is front and center.