There isn’t a white hat to be seen in the grimly realistic Western The Homesman, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank, and its most heroic character wears a bonnet not a Stetson.
The setting is the harsh, unyielding plains of 1850s Nebraska where the hardships of frontier life have driven three local women mad. Brief, blunt flashbacks reveal some of their torments, from dead children to brutal husbands.
Evidently, no man in the community is manly enough for the task of escorting the women back east across the Missouri river towards ‘civilisation’ in Iowa and the care of minister’s wife Meryl Streep, so Swank’s doughty, devout, unmarried pioneer woman Mary Bee Cuddy volunteers for the job. Belatedly recognising that she might need aid in confronting the perils in store, she ropes Jones’s ne’er-do-well claim-jumper George Briggs into accompanying her on the five-week journey, having just rescued him from a lynching.
Hollywood has done this odd-couple pairing of pious spinster and boozy reprobate before, of course, most notably with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, but don’t expect to find any of that movie’s feelgood jauntiness here. There are flashes of dark humour, for sure, but for the most part The Homesman’s pared-down, episodic narrative is as bleak as the unforgiving terrain the characters cross in a makeshift wooden wagon. Yet where the landscapes are stark and empty Swank and Jones (who also directs) give the characters of Mary Bee and Briggs richly vivid complexity.
Resilient and resourceful, Mary Bee yearns for a husband, only to be told she is too plain and too bossy to marry by each single man she encounters. The cloth keyboard on which she mimes playing songs signals her yearning for domesticity, but she is prey to deeper, more disquieting yearnings, too. Briggs is ornery, wily and selfish but surprises himself into acts of decency and kindness. Both characters are mysteries to themselves as much as to us.
Adapted from the novel by Glendon Swarthout, this is Jones’s second feature as a director, a follow-up to his edgy, offbeat, modern-day Western, 2005’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and it is a dark, difficult, prickly film that certainly won’t be too all tastes. Viewers searching for a cosy revival of the classic Western should look elsewhere, but hardy cinematic pioneers will find depths of compassion and pathos here, as well as shrewd insight into the physical and psychological costs of ‘taming’ the Old West on men and, above all, women.
Certificate 15. Runtime 123 mins. Director Tommy Lee Jones.
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