Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank: Mary and Martha) is a better man than most. Tending a homestead by herself in the harsh Nebraska territory, she’s made her plot a success. But it’s a hard, solitary life. She longs for a family, but the men of the territory revile her self-sufficiency.
Cuddy’s world is unforgiving. Wind whips the dead earth across the flat expanses of dry brown, treeless land. It’s an easy place to die, especially for a woman. Harsh winters freeze crops and starve livestock, disease claims the young and the weak, roving bands of displaced Native Americans pick off lone settlers, and unscrupulous men believe any unclaimed woman is theirs to abuse.
Though Cuddy barrels through her solitary existence, the ugly realities of life in the territory outpost are too much for three other women, who develop prairie fever. Theoline (Miranda Otto: Rake) kills her baby after a psychotic break. Arabella (Grace Gummer: American Horror Story) is catatonic with grief after the loss of her three children to a diphtheria outbreak. Gro (Sonja Richter: The Miracle) has become feral after the death of her mother left her alone with her abusive spouse. The three husbands decide the best thing to do is send them East to their families. Each woman is treated like chattel, a defective cow that won’t produce and is unceremoniously sent back to the seller. Though the men want to be rid of their “fevered” wives, none wants to make the long, dangerous journey East.
Cuddy, the only unattached landowner, volunteers to shepherd the women across the dangerous Nebraska territory to the safety and civilization of Iowa. Because she’s a woman, the town decides that Cuddy must have a homesman, a male guide. Cuddy finds her own help in George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones: The Family), who is about to be hanged for claim jumping.
George is glad to trade the noose for a job. He chafes at being bossed by a woman, but he needs the money and the whiskey that Cuddy promises at journey’s end.
An old-fashioned western with a desolate view of life on the frontier, The Homesman is heart-wrenching and beautiful. As well as acting, Jones co-wrote the script and directed, creating a powerful narrative about the ugliness of humanity and nature.
Working with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Jones makes the planes of the territory a character. Each shot emphasizes the isolation and cruel beauty of the surroundings. The sky is a vast kaleidoscope, but the ground is a dull flat expanse in all directions. Houses sit on the horizon line, looking like they’re about to fall off the edge of the earth.
In his performance and his shooting techniques, Jones pays homage to classic western tropes. Western fans will recognize images from True Grit, Sergio Leone and John Ford films. Jones’ George is an amoral hybrid of Walter Brennan and Rooster Cogburn. It’s one of the brightest and most nuanced performances he has offered in years. It’s a treat to watch Jones leave his usually austere style to whoop it up as a scallywag who isn’t above a fireside song and dance when the mood — or the whiskey — strikes him.
In the quieter role of Cuddy, Swank is astounding. She sets her jaw and squints into the wind like a true pioneer, her determination to make a life for herself impressive and fearsome. Her Cuddy is a complicated woman whose steel will belies a sad, sensitive soul. When the loneliness becomes too great, she unfurls a felt keyboard and pretends to play piano. It’s an effective character note and arresting visual metaphor for her life on the prairie: Cuddy has the skill but no instrument, so she must be satisfied with the pantomime.
A fatalist western that places the human condition somewhere between despair and misanthropy, The Homesman isn’t a film for the popcorn crowds. Filled with wonderful acting — there’s even a Meryl Streep cameo — breathtaking cinematography and philosophical questions, it was made for cinephiles. Buy a ticket and be thankful that you don’t have a home on the range.
Great Western • R • 122 mins.