Tommy Lee Jones’ return to feature directing nine years after THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA doesn’t quite strike the same perfect balance of tone, characterisation and slow-burning story, but it does reaffirm Jones’ mercurial eye for detail and reemphasise his interesting take on the dark corners of the human mind and soul.
When independent and sharp-witted frontierswoman Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers to transport three deeply disturbed women to a far away pious community for the sake of their immortal souls, the only company offered is down-on-his luck lowlife George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) and even he only joins her for the promise of a reward. How will their journey change this unlikely pair of travelers, and what will they find at its end?
After a strong start THE HOMESMAN is perhaps a little over-reliant on easy stereotyping for the sake of fluid storytelling. I didn’t really like that Mary Bee’s human cargo are neatly pigeon-holed stereotypes of madness. One just stares into the middle distance, one clutches on to a doll and rocks, the other foams at the mouth and lashes out like a feral animal. It’s all just a bit convenient. Aside from this the characters are all pretty well-drawn, and everyone (especially Swank) perform their parts superbly.
Jones’ representation of the harshness of life on the American Frontier is harrowing. And yet, we are given moments of both gentle humour and very black, almost Coen-y comedy – from George staggering out of his blasted hovel blackened by soot in his long-johns to Mary Bee’s increasingly desperate attempts to woo every man put off by her independence and “plainness” – to break up the bleakness and stop it all feeling too oppressive. The humour of Mary Bee’s rejected proposition always has a darker side, as no matter how intellectually free she is, she could never truly achieve the lifestyle or social status she desired lacking a husband in that time.
It’s likely a testament to the high regard Jones is held in amongst his fellows that he has convinced so many big names to come on board for what are essentially glorified cameos. Tim Blake Nelson as a scruffy scoundrel who has an entertainingly clumsy scuffle with Jones; John Lithgow as a kindly priest; James Spader as a slimy hotelier (with atrocious Irish accent); Meryl Streep as a kindly pastor’s wife. None of them really add a whole lot to the wider story, but they do contribute interesting background shades to film canvas as a whole.
From being pretty grounded and compelling to begin with, the film does become the Tommy Lee Jones show towards the end, with the actor-director providing himself with ample opportunity to prove he can still handle himself and dole out some good old-fashioned revenge. To begin with his character is quite a pathetic example of a man, like a mangy pitiable dog, but he seems to regain his composure and Jones’ usual gait a little too quickly for my money. It’s still the best performance he’s given in a while, and the constantly shifting dynamics of the relationship between George and Miss Cuddy keeps the film involving and very watchable.
It’s a feminist old yarn directed and co-written by a craggy old macho Texan, which might seem an odd formula. While it’s a liberating tale to an extent, it doesn’t shy from the hopelessness of this group of women’s situation, and doesn’t try and tack on an unbelievable resolution either. Jones and his writers know that then as well as now, much work is to be done before we reach true gender equality. He uses humour to hammer his points home, asking us, isn’t it ridiculous how scared Mary Bee’s suitors get when they realise how driven and more intelligent than them she is? George is the only man in the film who considers her an equal, not turning down her offer of marriage because she won’t be an obedient wife, rather just because she is plain-looking. George is a simple man who says it how it is, and is seemingly without prejudice, though that doesn’t make him a nice guy.
The Homesman is a Western that isn’t even really a Western. It’s a stark human drama with a strong voice that just happens to be set on the American Frontier. You don’t begrudge Jones for using a few run-of-the-mill tropes when his film reaches such distinctive heights elsewhere. Just don’t leave it another decade before you direct again, eh Tommy? SSP