REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
The Western genre typically relegates women to stock characters. They can be two-dimensional dance hall entertainers, schoolmarms, or wives of frontier sodbusters.
“The Homesman” offers another potential paradigm. We meet the hard-working Mary Bee Cuddy (Hillary Swank) as she is plowing the soil. She owns and operates a large, thriving farm in the Nebraska territory, circa 1854. The self-sufficient woman doesn’t need a man to support her economically.
However, at 31, Mary Bee is on the cusp of attaining the stigma of old maid status. She desperately wants to escape this unwelcome fate by securing a husband. One evening, Mary Bee cooks a delicious dinner for Bob Giffen (Evan Jones), a roughhewn bachelor. Then, Mary Bee demonstrates her refinement, serenading him with a postprandial song, while simulating chords on a phantom piano. When she proposes to Bob, he is horrified by the prospect. Unable to suppress his disgust, Bob blurts out that Mary Bee is, “just plumb plain” and “too damn bossy” to boot.
It’s a hardscrabble life. Following a harsh winter, three of the settler wives have been driven mad. In a horrifying scene, Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) carries her neonate to the outhouse and tosses her in. Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer, the daughter of Meryl Streep) lost all three of her children to diphtheria. Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) is abused by her brutish husband. He is indignant that she has proven barren. Her persistent outbursts of screaming and attacking those within arm’s length. Her conduct suggests that she has been possessed by demonic forces.
|At Sunday church services, Reverend Alfred Dowd (John Lithgow) asserts that the three addlepated women should be transported eastward to Iowa. There, they will be entrusted to a Methodist Aid Society, which will take care of the mentally ill women. He seeks a male congregant to transport the three lunatics. When none of them will take on the mission, Mary Bee volunteers her services. What motivates Mary Beth? Is it her sense of altruism or does she identify with the three social pariahs, who are plagued with mental health issues?Initially, Reverend Dowd protests that this is not a job that can be entrusted to a woman. However, Mary Bee cites the fact that she is capable with a rifle, on horseback, and operating a wagon. Mary Bee contends that she is just as qualified for the task as any man in the community. In the absence of any other options, Reverend Dowd begrudgingly capitulates to Mary Bee’s impassioned argument.The town’s liveryman provides Mary Bee with a pair of mules and an enclosed wooden frame wagon. The latter is fitted with an external padlock. After all, any of these three deranged women could turn homicidal and murder Mary Bee.
At the outset of the journey, Mary Bee encounters George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones). Mounted on his horse, the grizzled old coot has a noose around his neck and his hands are tied behind his back. A vigilante lunch mob has identified George as a claim jumper and sentenced him to hang. As soon as George’s horse wanders from the tree, he is a dead man.
Following tense negotiations, Mary Bee agrees to untie George. In exchange, he is obliged to serve as her homesman, accompanying her on the perilous mission to Iowa. Mary Bee promises that, on arrival at their destination, George will receive a $300 stipend from the Methodist Aid Society.
The film follows the unlikely quintet as they venture across the plains. Along the way, they encounter many impediments, which challenge the collective pluck and resourcefulness of Mary Bee and George. Particularly harrowing is an encounter with a raiding party of bare-chested Pawnee Indians, who are festooned with garish war paint.
“The Homesman” is drawn from a book of the same name by the oft-adapted Glendon Swarthout. Another Swarthout novel set in the Old West, “The Shootist” provided the final screen outing for John Wayne. His most successful best-seller, “Bless the Beasts & Children,” became a film that revolved around a band of juvenile misfits and their efforts to emancipate a herd of bison. Another of his tomes, “Where the Boys Are” was adapted into a frothy film about college students descending on Fort Lauderdale during spring break.
In addition to co-starring with Hillary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones co-wrote the screenplay and directs “The Homesman.” Jones’ feature directorial debut, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” was a small gem. It suggested a promise that “The Homesman” fails to realize. The film does an excellent job of providing a carefully observed depiction of 19th century frontier life. However, given the fine cast and engaging premise, “The Homesman” is a disappointingly inert affair.
As the odd couple, Jones and Swank both deliver nicely nuanced performances. They capture the relationship between the film’s central characters as it evolves from mutual wariness to reluctant respect. They are not the only Academy Award winners to grace “The Homesman.” Late in the film, the redoubtable Meryl Streep shows up as a prim and proper wife of a minister. The strong supporting cast also includes Tim Blake Nelson as a crusty wagon train scout, James Spader as an unsympathetic operator of fledgling hotel, and Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross in the Coen Brothers’ remake of “True Grit”) as a barefoot waitress.
Veteran cinematographer, Rodrigo Pietro (“Babel,” “Argo”) eschews the elegiac visuals that define John Ford’s classic Monument Valley trilogy. Instead, Pietro’s visual motif suggests a bleakness, which mirrors the inner lives of the film’s characters. Marco Beltrami is best known for his musical contributions to four films in the “Scream” franchise and the other horror films of Wes Craven. Here, he provides a haunting score, which is full of wind-buffeted ambient sounds.
The film’s misleading title suggests a standard western with a macho male, who performs repeated acts of derring-do. However, “The Homesman” is fundamentally a feminist revisionist western, which focuses on its distaff protagonist. The film provides an insightful perspective on the challenges encountered by an independent-minded female in a bygone era.
“The Homesman” ***R (for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity) 122 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.