There aren't a lot of women in Westerns. Most of the time they're on the edges of the screen, left behind on the homestead, kidnapped by injuns, enticing men into saloons. As a rule, a woman does not drive the Western plot, but this year's The Homesman is one of very few exceptions.
In this rough and tumble version of the glass cliff, even in the West a woman doesn't assume leadership unless the task is so difficult not even the burliest cowboy wants it. In The Homesman, directed and co-written by Tommy Lee Jones (another of the script's writers is SA's own Wesley Oliver) and based on an award-winning novel of the same name, Hilary Swank's Mary Bee Cuddy finds herself in such a position. Three women in the Nebraska territory (circa 1850) have gone mad, and their husbands want no part of their care. Their only hope is to be transported via a long journey to Iowa, where a women's group will provide further aid. However, the near-catatonic women need an escort, and when 31-year-old, kindhearted "spinster" Cuddy steps up, the men are more than relieved.
Though admirably self-sufficient (and also, apparently too "bossy" and "plain" to realize her dream of marriage), Cuddy is herself relieved when she gets a helping hand, albeit in the form of the rapscallion claim jumper George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones). Together they collect the women and set out on a harsh, perilous adventure.
Unlike the book, the film downplays the exhausting everyday responsibilities Cuddy and Briggs' passengers endured and that likely contributed to their insanity. Instead, the focus is on their auxiliary, far more cinematic, traumas: a mother's death, infanticide, three children dying from illness within a few days. And while it seems to take away from The Homesman's original message of women bearing the brunt of their husbands' decision to become homesteaders, this movie needs all the zing it can get.
During their journey, there are slow swaths as vast as the treeless Nebraska terrain. Swank and Jones seem weary, the effects not only of their immense skills as actors, but also of the harsh filming conditions Oliver told of in an interview last spring. When Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader make unconnected cameos, their appearances are so vibrant in comparison that the viewer almost welcomes their presence, though the men they portray are a would-be rapist and a charlatan, respectively.
But stick with it, as the plot moves toward Iowa's civilization, so too is there renewed life in the story. Plus, the cast is incredible in a way that mimics the central theme. While Jones and several male actors peacock around, Swank and the actresses playing the three insane women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) dig deep and eschew all vanity to create unpretentious, deeply sympathetic characters. That we may rather be watching the male characters whoop and holler instead of the women, suffering the men's consequences and quietly holding down the heart of the film, says a lot about our culture's unfortunate gaze to this day.
The Homesman, Dir. Tommy Lee Jones; writ. Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver (based on a book by Glendon Swarthout); feat. Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter. Opens November 28 at Santikos Bijou ★★★★