Film Review – The Homesman
All of the mythologizing of the American West that has occurred in movies over the years has been focused on men. The romantic view of the cool solitary figure casually rolling a cigarette with one hand while herding 100 head of cattle while majestically staring out over the open plains has been a staple of popular entertainment. If women show up in these stories at all, they are usually relegated to the noble but supporting wife who keeps the home immaculate and tends to the litter of children. Or she is the bawdy, world weary saloon girl with the heart of gold. In reality, frontier life was much more harsh for women than that. They were real people too, stuck in a society that didn’t much value them beyond their ability to procreate. And they were expected to deal with their station in life with solemnity which could create quite a world of isolation. These are some of the themes that are explored in The Homesman.
In only his second theatrical outing in the directors chair, Tommy Lee Jones has created a revisionist western that would feel at home amongst the films of the 1970s. If you consider how films of that time were reexamining some of the typical genre tropes in movies like Little Big Man or The Outlaw Josie Wales, you can see The Homesman as being a spiritual cousin to those earlier films. This movie isn’t focusing on Native Americans like those examples, but it is centering on characters that typically weren’t featured previously.
Despite having won two Academy Awards and being one of the best actresses of her generation, it always feels like Hilary Swank is forgotten in discussions of Hollywood’s elite. Collectively the public seems to take her for granted, which is a shame. Here she stars as Mary Bee Cuddy. Seen by the scant few men surrounding her in the remote frontier town as plain (mainly because she’s over the age of 20 something so she’s past her prime baby making years), she is a strong and proper owner of land. She runs a sustainable farm alone. She is clearly lonely. But she is also the strongest and smartest character in the film.
When 3 local married women (Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, The Newsroom‘s Grace Gummer) are driven to mental instability, their respective husbands feel they can no longer deal with them. It is no small coincidence in all of their cases that their insanity is related to their ability or inability to provide children. The husbands basically treat them as housekeepers and baby vessels. It is a truly tragic situation that feels real. So the townsfolk have deemed that all of these women need to be sent back East to a church refuge where they can get proper help. Mary steps up as a volunteer to escort these women for their long journey when all of the men in town prove too gutless to do so. She is greeted alternately with scorn and sympathy for her efforts. She is clearly motivated by her Christian charity and compassion for these ladies. But she is probably the only person that truly cares about these women.
Along the way she saves Tommy Lee Jones’ character Briggs from a posse’s noose. He is a squatter and drunkard whose been left to die dangling from a tree. She cuts him down in exchange for help on her very long trek. Jones is almost channeling Walter Houston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He comes from another western tradition of the wily old prospector type who is self motivated and mostly interested in whiskey. However, over time we learn more about his tragic past that fleshes him out as a character.
Visually this story isn’t romantic or sweeping. There aren’t many John Ford-esque vistas open prairies. A lot of this frontier is harsh, cold, and unforgiving. The cinematography is workmanlike. Which is fine since this is mostly an actor’s showcase. This is a story of smaller moments.
And narratively it feels like Jones has been influenced by his experience in No Country For Old Men. The Homesman is similar in that there are some non-traditional second and third act detours. In fact, there is a lot here that is coincides with feminist literary theory. Scholars have explored a story structure which features many small climaxes instead of the traditional 3 act structure that features one final climax followed by a denouement (and for those who really read into that it is supposed to resemble the mapping of the female and male orgasms but reflected in narrative)(I didn’t make these theories up, I’m merely pointing it out). Based on a book by Glendon Swarthout, this story resembles some of this non-traditional storytelling. Basically don’t expect a neat and tidy ending.
The Homesman is a well acted and interesting film. Women on the frontier haven’t been highlighted enough in stories. And Little House on the Prairie this isn’t.