Based on the 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, The Homesman is Tommy Lee Jones’ second directorial feature. It’s a timely story choice, as the role of women and gender roles, in general, have been a reigning media topic of late. Successfully portraying the hardships women faced, The Homesman is a difficult watch because the societal pressures of that time still rings true today.
Pre-Civil War Nebraska suffers yet another harsh winter, failed harvest and various illnesses. Three young women, Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) and Theoline Belknapp (Miranda Otto), become mentally unstable due to lingering death, domestic abuse, poverty and starvation. Jones doesn’t linger on their individual stories but it is enough to horrify and implore sympathy. In contrast to them is our heroin; Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). She is a strong-willed, competent woman whom singlehandedly maintains her farm, can cook, clean, play piano, sing, shoot and ride like the best of them. She is an absolute prize on paper, but remains unmarried because she is perceived as too plain, bossy and old.
Cuddy steps up to the plate when the town committee decide to send the women away where they can get the care they need – like defective toys sent back to the factory. Alone, with a box wagon of ‘crazies’, she ventures towards the East. On her way she stumbles upon George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), sat tied on a horse with a noose around his neck attached to a tree. In return for saving his life, and the promise of $300, Biggs joins Cuddy on the road to Iowa. An unlikely friendship forms between them, but it never becomes comfortable. What starts out as an underlining disdain turns into a mutual understanding, tolerance and a sense of respect from Biggs for Cuddy.
The journey becomes a physical embodiment of what Cuddy has suffered internally in isolation all those years. So much so, that the final glimmer of hope in her dies. Swank does a splendent job in her deliverance and is beautifully supported by the unsettling score composed by Marco Beltrami and Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography of the harsh lands that serve as a further visualization of her continuous struggle. Cold, colourless and haunting.
The story does turn it’s attention more towards Biggs who becomes the anti-hero, diminishing the role of Cuddy. Jones avoids making Biggs likable and maintains his initial lone ranger attitude whilst being a man of honor by keeping his promise to Cuddy. Odd humor is paired with great emotional destruction.
Throughout The Homesman, madness follows like a cloud over the characters; deeply compassionate, tragic and on the verge of hysteria. Jones, plays a character that fits him like a glove while applying thoughtful precision in his directing.
By no means is The Homesman a pleasant watch, but it is well worth watching.