Tommy Lee Jones has crafted in “The Homesman” a painfully honest assault on the standard trappings of a Western.
His attack comes mainly through its brutal look at the limits of the pioneer spirit. The approach is so brutal the film is at times as repelling as it is compelling – but the mixture is so unpredictable, the result is a success.
The film, which Jones stars in, directed and co-wrote, is based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout. It pulls no punches in its examination of the often devastating events that faced American pioneers in the 19th century as they pressed their way across the country. Not every story had a happy ending because of the relentless, stark nature of the world.
Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a no-nonsense, plain-looking spinster surviving alone on the Nebraska plains. When her logical attempts to find someone to share her life fail, Cuddy agrees to take on a mission of mercy. She will transport three mentally ill women to Iowa, where they can find help.
Casting Swank as the emotionally conflicted heroine of the tale gave Jones the acting power he needed. Swank takes on another role of a strong, unappreciated woman trying to exist in a man’s world. And, just as she did in “Million Dollar Baby” and “Amelia,” Swank isn’t afraid to strip down emotionally and physically to provide the purest performance possible.
Jones plays small-time hustler George Briggs, hired to accompany the women on the long journey. His motivation starts out as strictly financial, but Briggs slowly reveals that buried beneath the gruff exterior is the heart of a man who hasn’t completely lost his humanity.
“The Homesman” excels in its embrace of the dark side of the “Westward Ho” spirit as shown through the three women being transported. This was a brutal time, where everything and everyone was a potential threat. Even the sharpest of minds would eventually snap under this kind of constant assault.
Jones holds the three mad women up as a painful contrast to Swank’s character. They have everything she wants – a husband, children, stable home, pleasing looks – but not enough strength to hold on to these things. Cuddy is spiritually and mentally strong, but she is emotionally tattered by what she longs for but can’t have.
Swank proves again that when it comes to playing characters who appear strong, but eventually reveal a softer side, there are few actors who can do it better. It’s the kind of work that makes Oscar voters smile.
Toss in some memorable cameos by James Spader and Meryl Streep, and “The Homesman” is an acting workshop.
The film’s weak points come out of Jones trying to do too much. His performance doesn’t maintain the level of honesty seen in the other actors. He slips into a cartoon version of the character too often, which doesn’t fit with the movie’s overall tone.
Lee rushes some scenes and dawdles through others, which makes the movie’s tempo erratic. Fortunately, it’s never so out of kilter that it detracts from a powerful and painful tale of the Old West.