Tommy Lee Jones' second movie as a director is no conventional Western. Look no further than the direction traveled by the film's characters — west to east — for confirmation. The Homesman is a story about the human toll of our nation's westward expansion, about the frontier that cruelly consumed the hopes and sanity of some settlers while at the same time providing freedom and prosperity to others. The American frontier welcomed those looking for opportunities and fresh starts, but not all the pioneers who hitched their wagons to a Western star prospered, though theirs are not the stories generally celebrated in myth and movies. The Homesman literally reverses course to peek at the abandoned ruins of lives lost to the frontier, the human potential plowed over like last year's crop.
The American frontier could be especially hard on women, and it's this predicament that confronts a loose community of Nebraska settlers as The Homesman opens. Three wives have lost their minds amid the harsh conditions, and we are shown enough of their plight to grasp their pain. One woman loses three babies in rapid succession to diphtheria, another tosses her newborn down an outhouse commode and the third is tortured by her husband's insensitivity and the ghost of her dead mother.
Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a hard-working frontierswoman who lives on her own and farms her own land. In an early scene, she proposes matrimony to an unmarried male neighbor — something she depicts as a practical business arrangement, but she is rebuffed for being "bossy and too plain." Yet when the local church folk charitably decide to send their three crazy women back east to be cared for amid the comparative civilization of Iowa, Mary Bee is the only person who volunteers to take the women on this compassionate but dangerous journey.
With the three madwomen (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) shackled to the walls of a makeshift paddy wagon, Mary Bee seizes on opportunity when she encounters scoundrel George Briggs (Jones) stuck in a life-threatening position, and exacts from him a promise to help escort the women in exchange for saving his life. The two make awkward companions, and for a while their progress is a bit like that of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen as the odd-couple pairing of their characters makes for barbed conversation. The focus of the film is on these two, and their human cargo grows less individuated and more of a mad Greek chorus or team of mythological sirens calling their sister Mary Bee to crash on their rocky shores. Still, Briggs and Cuddy are unforgettable characters.
Swank puts her angular toughness to good use, while Jones delivers one of the best crazy-old-coot performances of his career. The Homesman gives us a West devoid of gunslingers, heroes and hearth vs. hunt dynamics, and instead shows us people trying to get through their days alive and sane.♦