The appearance of "The Homesman" suggests that despite its present state of debility, the Western, that grand American form, still lives and breathes. This particular film, in fact, demonstrates the versatility of the genre, its possibilities for change and variation. It employs many of the traditional elements of its past, but handles them in some unusual ways, demonstrating once again that special dynamic between convention and invention, the source of so much appeal in any fixed or even formulaic genre.
The story takes place in Nebraska, judging by the weaponry at some point before the Civil War, when Nebraska was still a territory (statehood came in 1867). Its simple plot follows the pattern of hundreds of other movies, a perilous journey across a vast, empty landscape, in this case moving Eastward instead of the traditional Westward trek. It begins in one of those familiar little settlements perched precariously on the edge of the frontier and ends in a civilized, peaceful town in Iowa.
The journey, however, differs from the familiar cattle drive or rescue mission or search for villains; a resourceful young woman named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers to transport three deranged wives to a church that cares for the mentally ill. The women have descended into madness for varying reasons, but mostly simply because of Nebraska, with its incessant winds keening across the prairies, its emptiness, its loneliness.
Along the way Mary Bee saves the life of an unsavory drifter (Tommy Lee Jones) on the condition that he helps her on the trek. Naturally, during the journey the two of them meet a number of difficulties, including encounters with Indians and outlaws; despite a good deal of friction, the two of them also reach a kind of accommodation.
In many ways, again departing from its familiar paths, "The Homesman" constitutes something like a Western of despair. Reversing the expected outcome of the journey and the relationship, the odd couple never really reaches any sort of romantic connection or even any genuine reconciliation. Like a previous man in her life, Briggs tells Mary Bee that she is "too plain and too bossy." (In reality, I suspect a capable woman with her own farm on that godforsaken frontier would be a most desirable mate.)
In keeping with its traditions, the movie provides moments of violence, not all of them entirely justified; Briggs for example exacts a terrible revenge on a hotel keeper and his employees for denying him and the women food and shelter. It also shows that even the strongest person in the work, Mary Bee herself, can succumb to a kind of existential despair, a most unusual concept in a Western. That despair, ironically in effect both drives and eventually almost permeates the narrative.
Although supported in secondary parts by such actors as John Lithgow, James Spader, and Meryl Streep, the picture belongs to Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed. Both of them play determinedly unglamorous, unheroic people who find themselves encountering more difficulty and danger than they had anticipated and somehow winning against long odds. The camera never softens Swank's masculine features and she never allows herself even a moment of beauty or even repose, maintaining her character's resolute plainness and anger throughout.
Grizzled, his face seamed by experience and even sadness, Jones steadfastly also maintains a consistently unheroic character throughout; he underplays even his best moments and never allows the criminal drifter George Briggs to appear likable. Though not the usual Western character, however, he follows a familiar pattern, not the ritual of manhood that the form depends on, but something like a growth in humanity -- he fails to become a good person, but at least becomes a better person.
Perhaps most satisfying to students of the form, "The Homesman," despite its avoidance of some of the expected formulas and devices, still exhibits some of the important elements blessed by tradition, its own versions of the bath, the dance, the poker game, subjects very few Westerns neglect. The director also uses the necessary panorama shots, images of a wide expanse of empty prairie, with a lone rider in the distance, suggesting the bleak emptiness of a harsh landscape and the insignificance of its inhabitants, a country of despair as much as hope.
Adam Lubitow also saw "The Homesman." For his take on the film, click here.