Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” is a stark and beautiful and bleak portrait of life in the Midwest in the 1850s. The Nebraska territory is so unforgiving, conditions so harsh, you wonder why anyone chose to live there.
This is more of a Midwestern than a pure Western, and it contains not an ounce of romance about the time period. There’s no majestic score, no choreographed gunfight, no scene where the hero walks into a saloon in the middle of the day and it’s filled with gamblers, roustabouts and women of ill repute. “The Homesman” is a film about women who go mad after having to bury their children, ranchers barely eking out a living and bargains that are struck in the name of survival.
Hilary Swank, as good as she’s ever been (and we’re talking about a two-time Academy Award winner), is Mary Bee Cuddy, who lives alone on a small patch of land, doing the back-breaking work herself while comporting herself as a lady. (After a hard day plowing the fields, Mary Bee washes up and tidies up her home, meticulously placing a vase of flowers just so on the table.) Mary Bee’s in search of a husband, but as a neighboring farmer bluntly tells her after she’s cooked him dinner, sung a tune for him and proposed marriage, she’s far too bossy and plain.
So much for chivalry.
Three women in Mary Bee’s tiny community have gone insane. (I’ll leave the horrific circumstances of each to be discovered by the viewer.) The Reverend Dowd (a perfectly cast John Lithgow) has arranged for the women to be cared for by the wife of a minister in Iowa — but he needs someone to escort these dangerous, mute and stark raving mad women on a six-week journey across the plains and the Missouri River. It’s quite likely a suicide mission, and none of the men in town are up for it — but Mary Bee, a woman of great faith, accepts the assignment and believes the Lord will guide her, and these poor lost souls will find some measure of peace at the end of the journey.
This is Tommy Lee Jones’ second feature film as a director. (The first was the excellent “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” in 2005.) The first passages in “The Homesman” include flashback sequences showing us how those three women (played by Grace Gummer, Mirando Otto and Sonja Richter) lost their minds. It’s almost like a horror film. When Jones first appears onscreen as a lowlife squatter who calls himself George Briggs (it appears to be a name he’s made up on the spot), there’s an almost slapstick tone to scenes in which he’s nearly blown up and then left perched on his horse with a noose around his neck.
It defies credulity that the pragmatic Mary Bee would enlist this joker’s help, but the crusty, craggy-faced George, while lacking a moral compass, has clearly faced the elements over many a decade. Mary Bee knows she and the women will almost certainly die if they try to make this treacherous journey on their own. With George along for the ride — he agrees to the task after Mary Bee promises she’ll withdraw $300 from a bank in Iowa once the journey is completed — they have half a chance.
Jones the director goes back to harsh realism for the middle section of the film, in which Mary Bee and George are nearly constantly at odds with one another while battling the elements, trying to keep the women from running away or doing harm to themselves and fending off unfriendly strangers they encounter along the way. The trip is marked by some huge surprises and a few small moments of warmth and humor sprinkled in here and there.
Every once in a while a familiar face pops up for a scene or two: Meryl Streep, Hailee Steinfeld, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader. All are terrific, but Spader is particularly memorable, creating a character — a hotel operator — who in just a few quick scenes leaves us wanting to see an entire movie about him.
Jones, as one would expect, is brilliant playing the kind of cuss he’s played many times before. Swank creates a character who is sweet and kind and deeply religious and strong, but more than a little sad and sometimes appearing to be on the verge of succumbing to the same madness that has afflicted the women she’s caring for.
“The Homesman” is not an easy, comfortable viewing experience. That’s part of what makes it unique.
Roadside Attractions presents a film directed by Tommy Lee Jones and written by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Running time: 120 minutes. Rated R (for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre and AMC River East 21.