The western genre was once a proud staple of the cinematic landscape. On par with dramas and musicals, in their 50’s heyday dozens of westerns were produced each year in the United States alone. They were like the comic book movies of their day. But people have been predicting a saturation point for the comic book movie boom for years, and that seems to be what eventually happened to the western; these days you might get two or three of note, and in an unlucky year one of those might be A Million Ways to Die in the West. The Homesman is here in an effort to bring the genre’s reputation this decade back in line with films like Django Unchained and True Grit. And co-writer/director/star Tommy Lee Jones (of Small Soldiers fame) exercises quite a bit of ambition in the movie’s execution.
Set in the Midwest of the 1850’s, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a single, but capable farmer, despite her attempts to make a family. Her spinster status does not prevent her from being an active member of her community, so when three of the local wives (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) begin to go insane, Mary Bee volunteers to take them all back home Iowa-way. She recruits a social outcast calling himself “George Briggs” (Jones) in an effor to obtain some protection on her weeks-long journey. The two establish a grudging respect as they travel across the harsh terrain in the hopes of saving these poor women.
The most impressive aspect of The Homesman is its capacity for the unexpected. Many contemporary films telegraph plot developments from the outset, but the screenplay by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, and Wesley Oliver – based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout – avoids that pitfall with a general disregard for standard story beats. There are legitimate surprises throughout the picture that redefine what we think we know about Mary Bee and George.
The characters of Mary Bee and the insane women are quite interesting. Jones portrays the crazy women as sympathetic, but does not shy away from bad things that they may have done. This frontier life was not easy for anyone, but the expectations and limitations placed on women made it especially hard. Mary Bee is a conscious subversion of this prairie-era glass ceiling, but the film posits that perhaps even she is not immune to the pressures of the west. The Homesman walks a fine line between intentional and unintentional misogyny; its strong central female character must pass through a crucible of sorts, and her reaction to that test is questionable. Luckily Swank is around to inject plenty of pathos into the performance of a cold woman who is described as both “plain” and “bossy” – she brings out what dimension there is to find (despite her inability to sell the old west-speak).
Swank and Jones aren’t the only big names on hand. Jones clearly called in a bunch of favors for The Homesman, because the cast is littered with celebrities on hand for one or two scenes at the most, including Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld (returning to the genre that launched her career). Even Miranda Otto, who seems set-up to play a major role, barely registers as a presence. It’s all well and good to fill out your cast with stars, but this calculated move ends up being more distracting than anything else. Character actors like William Fichtner and Tim Blake Nelson blend in perfectly, but Streep and Spader stand out like foxes in a henhouse.
In a season full of repetitive and underwhelming movies intended to elicit an emotional reaction, The Homesman is refreshing in its willingness to do something different. The movie has an interesting perspective on the inequalities of the time, and it toys with deeper themes like fate and inevitability. People change for the worse in the old west, but few improvements – physically, mentally, or emotionally – will last longer than the time it takes to dance a drunken jig. Maybe this is the destiny for the western genre as well; even if we get ten A Million Ways to Die in the Wests, one or two daring Homesmans might help keep the balance.