Review: The Homesman
The stark cruelty and tragic isolation of the 1850s frontier life is omnipresent in The Homesman¸ Tommy Lee Jones’ troubling and immersive period drama.
Hilary Swank is Mary Bee Cuddy, the titular and reluctant ‘homesman,’ a strong though plagued woman tasked with transporting a trio of mentally ill women across the country when the weak-willed men of her country couldn’t bear to take the journey. Living in the Midwest has proved difficult for Cuddy, but nowhere near as awful for these wives and mothers who have seen heartache, loss, and abuse.
Just as she parts, scared yet determined, she fatefully encounters George Briggs (Jones), a debt-owing curmudgeon in need of help himself – he’s atop a horse with a noose around his neck. His life saved for now, the two form a mutually beneficial relationship as they traverse a landscape filled with nefarious drifters, wary natives, wintry elements, and greedy opportunists.
Jones and Swank are rather remarkable together, making an entertaining and peculiar couple. They are times comically absurd while as well uncomfortable and intense. A sense of duty prevails for Briggs, but he is not necessarily as obedient as Cuddy hopes. A world-weary man played with Jones’ typical, impressive mix of sympathy and stubborn, almost hopeless determination, Briggs is pivotal at navigating this small campaign.
Moments of lightness brought by Briggs (he sings, dances, and curses to our amusement) punctuate a grave environment in a film that so casually and suddenly introduces us to depraved horror that was nothing more than day to day life. We witness both in part what drove these women to madness as well as how their insanity manifests: it’s disturbing and heartbreaking.
Cuddy is somewhere in between. While Briggs is surrounding by women on this journey, it’s the men he encounters that are duplicitous and dangerous, and we watch the painful toll it takes on the strongest of women.
Authentic and effecting, this film adaptation of the 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, features an immensely talented ensemble cast including the likes of Miranda Otto, William Fichtner, John Lithgow, James Spader, and Meryl Streep. Superbly-acted with beautiful and haunting imagery, The Homesman provides an intimate snippet of a dangerous and fleeting world.