A fine midwestern
Broken pioneers on a brutal journey
The Homesman is an excellent western, partly because it is also a very good “anti-western.” And, western or not, it is also a surprisingly powerful allegory of American character in some of its more legendary forms.
Based on Glendon Swarthout’s prize-winning western novel from 1988, it tells the story of a young spinster named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a solitary but very capable Nebraska rancher who takes on the duty of transporting three neighbor women, all of whom have gone mad during a very bad winter, back to some kind of safe haven in the east.
The title character is a rascal and loner named George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed and co-wrote) whom Cuddy rescues from a bungled lynching and enlists as a kind of trail guide for the journey east. The story of that journey is a testament to the strength of Cuddy’s character, and its limits, and to the limits of Briggs’ own strengths and their gradual, partial transformation as well.
Jones presents that story as a stark series of contrasting episodes, with a bare minimum of talk and explanation, let alone narrative transitions. The rare bursts of violence are abrupt and shocking. And the moments of haunting drama—a deadly rescue, the burning of a splendid edifice, Briggs and the three unfortunates emerging from a river—have the compact force and directness of something from the Old Testament.
Jones and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto give us landscapes that are both glorious and bleak, and their visual compositions for several key scenes seem inspired by classics of 19th century American painting. Swank is very good with Cuddy’s mixtures of tender virtue and tough authority. Brief appearances by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Lithgow, Meryl Streep and Barry Corbin give distinctive flavor to the variety of frontier folk that Briggs and Cuddy encounter along the eastward trail.