“God will strike you down”
I didn’t necessarily love The Homesman, but it’s hard not to respect it. This is a dark story in the desolate Mid-West with outlaw justice and remorseless murder surrounding the charitably selfless journey of Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) and the three crazed women she’s taking across the Missouri into Iowa so they can be cared for under reasonable conditions. It can’t have been an easy adaptation of Glendon Swarthout‘s novel for director Tommy Lee Jones and his co-writers Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver because it’s construction finds numerous snippets of the past arriving randomly (with a thin emotional tether) and a series of short vignettes fading to black as though drowsy blinks through time. Each swath helps enhance the harsh environment and psychological trauma on display, but I can’t say it was easy to watch.
After The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada—a film I liked a lot—it shouldn’t be a surprise that Jones gravitated towards another slow burning, cerebral western. Nor should we ignore the utter uniqueness of a story refusing to even graze mainstream sensibilities for box office glory. This tale is instead unafraid to color things plainly with direct dialogue and even more direct visuals; so unflinchingly authentic in its artifice that seeing a distressed young woman playing with a doll as the camera pans down to a dead baby lying motionless between her legs is less jarring than a sad truth of the era. There’s a strangely comic strain too whether through men calling Cuddy “plain” and “bossy” in response to her marriage proposals or the frivolous jigs allowing a brief smile within an otherwise thick drama.
At its center is its greatest strength: a huge heart. Or perhaps I should say a desire to share one. Because while Cuddy wants nothing more than a family of her own—something the solitary life of being a self-sufficient woman hasn’t provided thus far—no one is willing to comply. She’s ahead of her time with a strength and moxie that scares men and women alike when let loose upon them. As a result, the same act of kindness placing her in the position to takeover for the coward and untrustworthy Vester Belknap (William Fichtner) as homesman (an escort back home for immigrants) for his own wife Theoline (Miranda Otto) and two other in Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter), and Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) is exactly the kind of thing that makes her a pariah.
She doesn’t care, though. A God-fearing citizen, she’ll step up when the men who’ve failed to care for their wives can’t (and by the horrific glimpses at the past maybe never would). So when she sees a helpless man in George Briggs (Jones) sitting on a horse with a noose around his neck, she sees opportunity. The kindness of sparing his life will be given only if he swears to accompany her east knowing his presence will make the journey a little less daunting. He agrees, but not being a man of honor means she has to also sweeten the pot with the promise of three hundred dollars. For this and this alone he will watch out for these three lost souls, spell Mary Bee on the carriage reins, and do what he can to preserve their safety.
It’s an adventure full of unseen dangers on top of the volatile unpredictability of the wards themselves. Between Gro’s wailing and lunging with teeth bared and Theoline’s want to bury Arabella’s doll as her own child despite the latter using it as a last memory of hers, tying them up 24/7 isn’t enough. And crossing paths with Native Americans—live and dead—as well as uncouth strangers such as Tim Blake Nelson‘s freighter only wears them down more. Jones delivers an existential test through Swarthout’s words in this respect as the kitchen sink is thrown onto Mary Bee’s shoulders to drive her into the dirt until her unwavering hope edged with frustration is extinguished for good. Whether or not Briggs picks up the slack or continues to languish in his own self-preservation, however, remains to be seen.
There’s a litany of strong talent and performances throughout from Barry Corbin‘s words of wisdom at the start to John Lithgow‘s self-aware empty apologies for not going in Mary’s stead to James Spader‘s self-righteous superiority beneath a salesman’s grin. Hailee Steinfeld and Gummer’s mother Meryl Streep even make appearances towards the end to the audible pleasure of the crowd with which I viewed the film when seeing their names in the credits. Almost all of these bit parts arrive as further whacks of the hammer onto the nails of Mary Bee and Briggs, putting them down because of their looks or culture despite them being two of the few compassionate souls onscreen (whether they both started that way or not). Everything the film possesses scratches and claws at them, seeking their breaking points and watching the fallout.
And while I didn’t love the way Jones let it all unfold in its confounding, disjointed segments fading in and out of each other, I cannot deny his overall effectiveness at telling the story without a shred of optimism. Because each time it seems like something good is coming or that a character has finally learned a lesson and is ready to turn the corner, in comes tragedy to stop it in its tracks. I mean literally stop it as an event around two-thirds of the way through took me completely off-guard to change the focus if not the essence of the film itself. That’s a bold maneuver nine studios out of ten probably would fight against and win, so kudos to Roadside Attractions for letting Jones take this one to its bleakly sardonic end.
 Tim Blake Nelson and Tommy Lee Jones in THE HOMESMAN. Photo credit: Dawn Jones
 Hilary Swank stars in THE HOMESMAN. Photo credit: Dawn Jones
 Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank star in THE HOMESMAN. Photo credit: Dawn Jones