Austin Film Festival 2014
By Linc Leifeste | November 18, 2014
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Writers: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver, Glendon Swarthout (novel)
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, David Dencik, Evan Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, William Fichtner, Meryl Streep
The title of Tommy Lee Jones’ fourth directorial effort might be The Homesman but don’t let that confuse you. More an anti-Western than a Western, while George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) may wind up with slightly more screen time, this film’s heart and soul is Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) and the plight of women living in the American West of the 19th century.
The film opens with Cuddy plowing her desolate but beautiful Nebraska Territory homestead field, and it’s immediately striking to see because it’s a woman by herself behind the mules. Right away it’s clear that this is a kick-ass woman. But she’s soon done and back inside her pristine cabin, setting out a tablecloth and flowers, frying up chicken and prettying herself for the arrival of Bob Giffen (Evan Jones), a neighboring farmer and more importantly, a bachelor. And we’re right back to mid-1850’s reality. Cuddy may be a bad-ass but she’s one who has found herself in the unenviable position of making it into her 30’s without finding a husband or bearing children and is clearly beginning to get desperate to find a mate. Her desperation leads her to make a forthright proposal after their shared dinner, leading Giffen to quickly depart after firmly expressing his lack of interest in ever marrying such a “bossy” and “plain looking” woman.
In the meantime, three neighboring women who have been “lucky” enough to marry have still managed to lose their sanity. Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) has suddenly lost all three of her young children to diphtheria and is continually haunted by their cries. Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) and her disreputable husband (William Fichtner) have lost their livestock to disease and their crops are failing before she takes the life of her young baby. Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) has just lost her mother and that, combined with her suffering through being repeatedly raped by her husband (David Dencik), who is desperate for a son, drives her to self mutilation and insanity.
When it’s decided that the best course of action is for someone to take these three women back East to their families, none of the men are eager to abandon their farms and responsibilities to make the long, arduous journey. That and there’s the matter of the inherent dangers that come along with such a journey. Ultimately Cuddy steps up and volunteers to transport the women herself. She soon finds a man to accompany her on her journey when she comes across George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) sitting horseback, a noose around his neck, left to die by vigilantes after attempting to claim-jump a resident’s temporarily abandoned home. She rescues him on the condition that he do whatever she ask. Desperate, he agrees, not realizing the epic journey he is signing on for.
The majority of the film deals with the relationship that develops between Cuddy and Briggs as they attempt to transport these women halfway across the country. Along the way they struggle to keep the three women in tow as they face life-threatening weather conditions and flashes of intensely nerve-wracking violence as they encounter a bloodcurdling band of Native Americans and a murderous pioneer (Tim Blake Nelson). But the real struggle, as it so often does, takes place within, as Cuddy struggles to keep up hope in the face of such darkness and desperation. Beautifully shot and framed, with a stellar soundtrack by Marco Beltrami, Jones intersperses flashes of horror and violence amidst long stretches of solitude as the band journeys through wide open and desolate country.
Jones, as with his criminally underrated The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, shows a deft hand in dealing in equal parts dark despair and black comedy, with a tone that shifts back and forth from somber bleakness to the downright surreal. His Briggs is as much Yosemite Sam as Woodrow F. Call, not necessarily the man you’d want to rely on in Cuddy’s situation, but he’s capable of dealing Cormac McCarthyesque levels of death and destruction when he sets his mind to it, in scenes that feel and look like something out of a fevered dream.
But ultimately this is not the story of Briggs so much as the story of Cuddy and 1850’s American frontier life. An incredibly brave, strong and tough woman, her inability to find a husband is partially the result of her independent spirit. Jones and crew do an admirable job of capturing her many qualities while also keeping the story true to its time and place. In 1850’s Nebraska Territory, for a strong-willed, independent-minded woman, the options are either to be broken or to change her ways and adapt. No matter how brave or how strong, it’s not a possibility for her to rewrite the rules or rise above her situation. For shining the spotlight on the too often overlooked suffering of the frontier women of the American West, Jones deserves credit. In The Homesman, Cuddy gets the treatment she deserves but sadly also ultimately the fate that her time and place demand.