Tommy Lee Jones does some times feel like an actor born out of his prime. With his weather beaten face and sharp southern tongue he should have been on screen with the likes of Walter Brennan, Harry Carey and Henry Fonda. These days a Western is perhaps, considered more of a throwback, nostalgia conceit than a setting to tell a timeless story. Jones’ first cinema outing as director, The Three Burials of Malquiades Estrada, incorporated the Mexican desert. A heavy sense of Peckinpah in his prime hungover the entire film.
For The Homesman, his second cinematic feature he’s gone all the way back to the west – the midwest.
Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a New York music teacher who has come out west in such of more opportunity. Instead what she finds is isolation and a longing for a husband. At 31 years old she feels she’s fast approaching spinster hood. The men of her town already see her that way as it’s commented that she is far too plain. Three women in the region become mentally incapable after suffering abuse, loss and depression. There husbands are unable or unwilling to take them on the treacherous ride to Iowa to a church run home for the mentally ill. A terrified but reticent Mary Bee agrees to take the women on the journey out her sense of Christian charity. Before setting out she comes across Tommy Lee Jones’ George Briggs, with a noose around his neck for claim jumping a locals area. He agrees to help her for saving his life so the two set out on a voyage with the three women which sees them cross raging rivers, native americans wearing the clothes of dead soldiers, Tim Blake Nelson’s lechorous trader, an Irish James Spader running a hotel in the middle of nowhere and a very benevolent Meryl Streep.
Depression is the running theme of The Homesman. Despite it’s Western trappings, which is not a genre known for it’s treatment of mental health issues, loneliness and desperation hovers over the film like a fog. From the three women who have all broken down – one after years of rape, one after losing a child and another who can’t cope with life out in the west – are the most obvious examples. But Cuddy’s story is desperately sad too. All she wants is a stable family life, whether for social or religious reasons. Perhaps she see’s in these three women how close to breaking point she is that sends her on this gruelling trip. All the characters in her home town live for survival as does Briggs. Never directly spoken of but he is clearly a man who has seen a lot of bad things in his life. Jones’ wonderfully craggly face tells you everything you need to know. His actions – handy with his fists and a gun – and a sideward glance fill in much of the blanks of his past. As a team Cuddy and Briggs walk the fine line of cliched can’t stand each other but end up loving each other, instead they learn a growing tolerance/respect for one another.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s regular DOP Rodrigo Prieto gives The Homesman a fantastically sparse but romantic film. Tiny figures are silhouetted against vast landscapes. It’s a bit of an old hat Western visual but when they look this beautiful it’s hard not to go along with it. The cast are uniformly strong. Jones’ does his usual cranky, don’t mess with me thing but incorporates a vulnerability and a foolishness that makes Briggs a fully rounded character. A prequel about him would no doubt be a tragic watch. The film boasts an alarming amount of top acting talent. Miranda Otto as one of the disturbed women is heartbreaking. William Fitchner is boo-hissable as one of the useless husbands. John Lithgow brings the right amount of cowardice and kindess to his pastor. Hailee Steinfield pops up in a small but pivotal role as a servant girl. James Spader who is always welcome in this house put’s in a somewhat over the top performance as a hotelier. Then Meryl Streep turns up feeling like a sweeter version of her role in Doubt. The film belongs to Swank though, both heartbreaking and at times infuriating. She is the definition of out-of-depth but putting a brave face on things.
As with most road movies once the wagon hits the road the story becomes somewhat episodic but it never feels like it’s a stop, start affair. Jones’ the film maker handles the constant stream of characters well by keeping it all anchored with his very strong lead characters. With Three Burials… time structures were altered, making it a hard film to fully get your heart behind. With The Homesman though he has constructed a very fine film indeed. If he wanted to make films in the setting for the rest of his career it would be no bad thing.
The Homesman is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from March 23rd via Entertainment One.