Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a woman trying to make it on her own in a small prairie town. When three women in the area become mentally ill and have to be transported from Nebraska to Iowa, Cuddy, and a claim jumper who she rescues, take the task on, and set out across the plains to bring the women home.
The Western, as a genre, is one that is not really being touched by the Hollywood system of late. Sure, The Coens made True Grit and the odd parody like A Million Ways to Die in the West turn up, but other than that, the Western seems to be a dead genre. Tommy Lee Jones sets out to change all that with a story about mental illness and rejection that is both uncomfortable and engaging.
Hilary Swank, in keeping with most of her career to date, takes on an unglamorous role in Mary bee Cuddy. While Cuddy is consistently described as plain, Swank makes her a strong and capable woman, but one who is deeply sensitive to the world around her. As the women wail, Cuddy cannot help but be distraught, and when life gets hard it affects her. Tommy Lee Jones plays claim jumper George Briggs as an alcoholic thief with a gentle heart. Although he starts off as gruff and a bit of a joke, Briggs soon reveals himself to be a caring and sensitive man, although this often comes a little too late. The rest of the cast is made up of John Lithgow, Meryl Streep, Miranda Otto, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader – sporting a not half bad Dublin accent – and Jesse Plemons. Each does well in their role, but The Homesman is really about the relationship between Cuddy and Briggs.
The story, co-written by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, is based on a novel by prolific writer Glendon Swarthout. At first it seems as though The Homesman is going to follow many clichés, especially in the characters of Cuddy and Briggs, but it soon steps away and into newer territory. The journey that the characters go on is not, as we have seen many times before, towards the West and to a new life, but back to the cities of the East and the comforts this offers. Adding in the notion of insanity in the West is a fascinating one, and while this is never explained, it is strongly implied that a lack of trees, cruelty from men and an unforgiving landscape took their toll on these Victorian women. The characters grow and develop throughout the film, sometimes falling into old habits and sometimes hiding in despair, but virtually no-one escapes unscathed.
As director, Jones coaxes incredible performances from his cast – himself included – and has a strong eye for detail that allows the film to speak for itself. While the pacing feels a little sluggish to begin with, and there is time spent wondering what is actually going on, once the caravans hits the plains, the film comes into its own. Visually, the film is beautifully shot, with blasts of colour punctuating the monotonous landscape.
In all, The Homesman is an emotionally engaging, bleak and often devastating film about madness in a time when it was not truly understood. Jones and Swank work wonderfully together and, once we get out of the towns and onto the plains, The Homesman is a powerful examination of relationships and the role of women in the West.