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Tommy Lee Jones is a dour man, at least on screen. His carefully cultivated persona is a laconic one of few words and little patience. It is a character that he plays to perfection, and in THE HOMESMAN, he imbues it with a wonderful, understated quirkiness that makes his star quality all the more charismatic. As director and co-writer of the film based on the Glendon Swarthout novel of the same name, he exults in that ci-mentioned laconic fashion playing George Briggs, an irascible, eccentric loner untethered to anyone or anything. Until he meets Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), the plain, bossy thirty-something spinster homesteader who extracts his word of honor to help her as he sits precipitously with a noose around his neck and a bored horse beneath him.
This may sound like familiar territory, with Katharine Hepburn in the spinster role and a manly co-star (Humphry Bogart, John Wayne) eventually falling for her, but this is no formula film. This is a film as tough and unforgiving as the Nebraska prarie on which it takes place, and as lyrically poetic as the flowery language of the people who inhabit it.
Mary Bee needs help in transporting three womem across the river to Iowa, a trip of five weeks’ duration made all the more difficult by angry Native Americans, amoral frontiersmen, and the fact that the three women have lost their minds after a hard prairie winter. Two (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto) are silent after losing children to disease or their own madness, one (Sonja Richter) calls down the wrath of God while inflicting her own after her mother’s death and her husband’s casual cruelty. Life in the isolation of sod huts takes its toll, but the townsfolk harken to their better natures and arrange for the women to be returned to their families back east. Mary Bee’s involvement is as much about her own loneliness and longing for a husband and family as it is her toughness. As for George, there is the money he is promised.
The look of the film is exquisite, with carefully composed shots creating an order that is in stark contrast to the chaos of the lives being led in them. Jones, in his director’s role, has a fine visual acuity in setting his characters in juxtaposition with the endless horizons, and the flinty cruelty of both nature and neighbors. He also gets another in a series of fine performance from Swank, who is both believably tough enough to farm her own stake, and to wistfully practice the piano on a keyboard made of delicate embroidery that substitutes for the real thing. Even at her most direct and commanding, asking a horrified neighbor to marry her, or putting George in his place, there is the striking vulnerability of a life half-lived, and a longing for that other half of family life, even after seeing what that life has wrought on the three women she is escorting with a mother’s tender care and a lioness’ courage. She is supported by a rich panoply of vivid and fully realized characters including an emotionally flummoxed James Fitchner as one of husbands sending his wife away, John Lithgow as the local preacher who sends Mary Bee on her journey with a prayer, Tim Blake Nelson as the wagon train scout with simple needs, James Spader as a dandy and a bounder, and Meryl Streep (Grace’s mother) as the brisk church lady with charity in her heart and little time to waste.
The film suffers from a jarring disconnect, however, from which, for all the fully realized characters and sense of time and place, it never quite recovers. As a story about the length of memory and the transience of life, it is a bittersweet exercise. Perhaps another approach to the story’s structure would have made it less jarring, or perhaps that was the intention of both author and screenwriter. It is certainly one of the most indelible moments I’ve seen in a film in a long time, disturbing though it is.
THE HOMESMAN has the hallmarks of myth about it. Handsomely made, eloquently performed, it evokes a style of filmmaking where character and storytelling are one and the same, and both, though simple in origin, becomes the stuff of legend.