Listen to the audio by Dennis Morton above, and read it below.
At first, The Homesman has the appearance of a western, but we learn pretty early in the movie that it would be more accurate to call it a ‘mid-western’, because most of the action occurs on the plains of The Nebraska Territory, probably in the mid 1800s. As the opening credits roll, we are treated to about three minutes of gorgeous vistas, devoid of humans, and, with the exception of two deer, it’s all flora, no fauna.
In retrospect, the camera’s panning of miles and miles of open prairie could be seen as a harbinger of the psychological trauma that infects so many of the characters in The Homesman. Emptiness breeds loneliness, and loneliness can lead to a myriad of less than attractive behaviors.
Hilary Swank plays an intelligent, articulate, talented, and resourceful woman named Mary Bee Cuddy. She lives by herself on a large spread miles from a very small town. We know she hails from upstate New York, but not why she chose to head west. We also know that she’s lonely and that there are very few potential mates. Early in the film she invites a fellow rancher to supper. He’s an uneducated boor, but Ms. Cuddy asks him to marry her. He is adamant in his refusal and tells her she is “too bossy and too damn plain”. She takes the refusal in stride, though it is evident that her feelings are hurt.
We soon learn that Ms. Cuddy’s problems pale in comparison with those of three other women. The psychic burden of the illnesses and deaths of family members have driven them past the coping point and into insanity. Medical care is non-existent. It is determined by the local clergyman, played by John Lithgow, that the only hope for these women is to be transported to Iowa, where another clergyman and his wife, played by Meryl Streep, might provide them with an opportunity to recover.
The perilous journey to Iowa in what amounts to a wooden paddy wagon pulled by mules is at the heart of the film. The reluctance or outright refusal of the ill women’s husbands to take responsibility for getting them to Iowa causes Ms. Cuddy to volunteer.
And at this point, Tommy Lee Jones’ character, a rogue who calls himself George Briggs, enters the scene. He’s a claim jumper, an army deserter, an alcoholic, and, when not besotted, or at death’s doorstep, a very quick witted and charming fellow. How he and Ms. Cuddy cross paths, and then join paths, and what they do on that path, is what The Homesman is all about.
The Homesman suggests that people can change their ways, and it also asks if they can change them enough, and in time. ‘In time for what’ is a question I leave for you to discover.
This is a film that defies romantic and narrative expectations. In other words, it surprises us with its twists and turns. We learn that practicality and naiveté can wear the same clothes, that incipient generosity and a penchant for mass murder can inhabit the same flesh.
Tommy Lee Jones not only shares the lead with Hilary Swank. He co-wrote the script, co-produced, and directed The Homesman. It’s a fine film.