Saving the souls of three women driven to insanity by desperate circumstances, The Homesman delivers a strong heroine prepared to make an incredible sacrifice.
Deep in the barren frontier of the great American west, Mary Bee Cuddy, portrayed by Hilary Swank, draws the short straw and accepts the task of taking three mentally unstable women back east. Mary is forced to enlist the assistance of the grizzled, elderly and unwilling low life George Briggs, played by Tommy Lee Jones. The deeply religious Mary Cuddy is consistently tough even though she is constantly reminded that a woman’s determination and bravery will only get her so far.
The three women she transports across country have lost their minds due to personal tragedy, rape and infanticide. These three helpless souls are to be taken to Iowa, a journey of four hundred miles traveling across the Nebraska territories. Carting their cargo in a caged wagon, Cuddy and Briggs must overcome their differences if they are to shepherd their tragic flock through the harsh landscape, freezing winter nights and avoid Indians and starvation.
Tommy Lee Jones returns as director after his debut of ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ back in 2005. Crafting a moving feminist film from a depressing story, Jones takes the role that offers the only humourous respite in what could have been an endlessly bleak trip. While Rodrigo Prieto’s gorgeous cinematography emphasises the raw beauty of the prairie and the stunning skyscapes that dwarf the characters, it is Marco Beltrami’s achingly emotional score that really cuts the deepest. The violins and particularly the mournful piano melody also remind of the toll that Cuddy’s sacrifices are taking on the woman who must continue to find inner strength, even as she misses the opportunity to make her own music.
Hilary Swank is the heart of the story with Cuddy being an admirable woman from start to finish. Swank is the perfect blend of strength and fragility that makes Cuddy a completely convincing and incredibly moving character. Tommy Lee Jones on the other hand, gets the majority of the laughs in the story, whilst having a great time as low life Briggs, an anti hero extraordinaire with the most interesting, if predictable arc. He is never a truly cruel man. Although Briggs’ single minded desire for the $300 he has been offered by Cuddy and his lack of compassion for the women in his care is at times amusing, it frequently exacerbates the tragedy of these women’s lives.
With Swank and Tommy Lee Jones giving the grand standing central performances, the remainder of the cast is dotted with big names given relatively little to do but all getting to make some impact in their limited scenes. Most notably, Meryl Streep and Hailee Steinfeld are dependable as women encountered on the journey while Tim Blake Nelson gets a wonderfully funny interlude when he gets into a fight with Jones’ slowly warming wise cracker.
Ultimately, ‘The Homesman’ is not about the titular character though. He may emerge as a great source of light, warmth and humour in the picture but this is mainly a story of women in the American west. They are mistreated, forced to endure terrible circumstances and disappear into their own messed up minds. Only Cuddy, a strong but sad woman herself, has any hope of reaching them and saving them from despair. However, the burden for this single woman is perhaps too much to bear making Swank the awfully conflicted pulse of the production.
With an excellent score and some gorgeous cinematography, The Homesman is a beautifully told feminist tragedy with a welcoming touch of humour.
About the Author
Pete Turner is a Senior Reporter at Tastic Film Magazine.