(SPOILERS) Tommy Lee Jones, the living embodiment of grizzled, directs his second western, but first in a period setting. The Homesman, an adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel, is a disjointed, listless affair. TLJ has more than enough material to play with, on the theme of women’s lot in the old west, but he ends up fashioning a picture that revolves around his male protagonist.
Doubtless the motives in shifting emphasis were noble ones. Rather than an empowering feminist western, this is the unvarnished way things really were, when the value of women rested on their capacity for breeding and making an obedient wife. The three mad women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) whose state initiate the picture’s central journey have “failed” in their duties as wife and baby maker; one’s offspring have died of diphtheria, another drowns hers in an outhouse, while another fails to become pregnant despite being daily raped by her husband. Their spouses are at best neglectful and at worst habitually abusive.
Contrasting this is Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) “plain and bossy” and moneyed, who cannot lure a husband; at 31 she is near enough out to pasture. When the menfolk in her small Nebraskan farming community fail to take responsibility for delivering the women to a church in Iowa. Cuddy assumes the mantle of “homesman”, agreeing to lead the journey, and employs the services of George Briggs (TLJ) a disreputable, disheveled claim jumper she saves from lynching.
So far, so intriguing as a premise. TLJ’s is a world filled with craven men, and Briggs is only nominally a good guy. He’s purely in it for the money, quite willing to leave Cuddy and the insane women alone in the desert. Those encountered on the way are lowlifes (Tim Blake Nelson’s horseman who steals away one of them for himself) or conmen (James Spader’s hotel owner). John Lithgow’s preacher, who blesses Cuddy’s trip, is similarly quite spineless.
But the picture is unable to find a strong enough perspective. Cuddy is turned down by men who are beneath her (Evan Jones, claiming she is “too damn bossy”, Briggs himself), but she is contrastingly religiously dogmatic and sufficiently determined that she sets out solo with these women (albeit relieved to have Briggs’ help). When she commits suicide, two thirds of the way through, it is not only a shock because we don’t see it coming, but also to the narrative, one from which Jones is unable to right the ship.
We can see why she does it; in a world where here only status comes from marriage she is effectively exiled. She throws herself at Briggs the night before, who turns down her marriage proposal but submits to sexual congress. It may well appear that there is no choice for her; she can remain alone, but even if she can find someone, those she is delivering to Iowa aren’t the greatest advert for married life. Swank, partial to put upon characters ever since The Next Karate Kid, is outstanding, but Jones is unable to convey the process by which she ends up reaching her choice, such that she would derelict her duty to these women, and commit the sin of suicide.
The final ignominy of her gravestone being kicked into a river is (likely) an intentional commentary on how her suffering means nothing. Even Briggs, who comes to profess her merits (when attempting to woo a much younger and less plain Halee Steinfeld), is only impacted by her but for a passing spell. He has the freedom of lawlessness and ignoring societal mores unavailable to her. Briggs even warns Steinfeld not to go west with a man who’s made a claim on a farm he hasn’t built yet: not to get sucked into an arrangement that fosters madness. But there’s something wrong here, when the picture is bringing the male gaze around to delivering the wisdom and insights.
The mad women are merely silent and not so silent cyphers; we’re delivered flashbacks attesting to their states, but Jones has no interest in exploring their condition. Again, you can call that a reflection of the times, but it seems as much about convenience of narrative. Grace Gummer has the wherewithal to blow Blake Nelson’s head off when the scene requires it, but otherwise occupies an entirely self-involved place.
TLJ appears to be drawing on the spirit of ’70 revisionist westerns, where things just happen, so the lack of narrative closure is a commentary on both the historical neatness of the genre and absence of rules in that world. But the lack of service paid to his female characters, and the indulgence of Briggs (the kind of colourful worldy-wise character that feels intensely familiar, since TLJ could play this kind of part in his sleep) undermines the picture. TLJ has populated the sidelines with a raft of familiar faces (Lithgow, Spader, Nelson, Jesse Plemons, William Fichtner, Meryl Streep) and Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is striking and memorable (from an early tableau of Fichtner standing amid dead cattle onwards), but his telling undermines him. The Homesman ends up disjointed and jarring in its shifts of focus.