In his two films as a director, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005) and now “The Homesman,” actor and Texas native Tommy Lee Jones has shown an affinity for the American West and the strong though often peculiar force field it exerts on human souls.
What’s singularly bracing about his new film is that the hardships and struggles of frontierswomen, so seldom a topic that interested those who made the Westerns of yesteryear, is on full display here.
This Western, like Jones’ previous effort, is thoroughly odd yet has a ring of truth. There’s little gunplay, the characters are more than a tad demented and the story’s journey goes eastward rather than westward.
It’s funny in parts, tragic nearly all the time and grimly realistic about the actual fact of the Old West as opposed to the romanticized vision promulgated in so many Westerns down through the years.
For Jones the West was a harsh, pitiless, unrelenting wilderness for all pioneers. True, they were mostly men, at least before the Civil War. But there were women who were not whores or schoolmarms and theirs was a tough lot.
These women tilled the soil, pumped well water and lost children at early ages. They grew hard and old fast — or maybe went plum crazy.
Which is what has happened to three women early in this story drawn from Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel about the Nebraska Territory around 1855.
One, a 19-year-old (Grace Gummer), has lost three children to diphtheria in a matter of days. The cruel husband of an immigrant woman (Sonja Richter) drags her mother, who has died moments before, out into a cold storm to be eaten by scavengers. Another farmer’s wife (Miranda Otto), in despair over failed crops and animals, murders her newborn.
These sequences play in awkward flashbacks that get the movie off to a rocky start. It’s not clear when this happened as these flashbacks are shoehorned into the story of Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a single woman with a successful homestead but too old (by the prairie’s standards) and “bossy” to attract a mate.
For reasons whose motivations remain unclear, Mary volunteers to convey the three loons to Iowa where a Christian minister and his wife have agreed to take them in.
It’s said she can ride, shoot and persist as well as any man on such a dangerous and rugged journey. Yet everyone believes — although no man volunteers — that she really needs a “homesman” to come along on the rugged journey.
Then she finds one at the end of his rope — literally. A blatant claim jump by a thieving drifter named George Briggs (Jones) has left him sitting on his horse with a noose around his neck. Mary only cuts him loose after extracting a promise to do anything she asks.
Once he gains back his freedom and his life, she tells him he is to accompany her and the three crazy women back to Iowa. He agrees but does hold out for the large sum of $300 for fulfilling his promise.
They are a decidedly odd match, these two, both in terms of age, temperament and morality. Mary is half George’s age, she is resolute where he is feckless and she is moral while he is … well, he just never saw the point.
Sounds like a Coen Bros. dark comedy but in hands of Jones and his fellow writers, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver, “Homesman” is dark but seldom a laughing matter. While their clashes may bring a smile to your face, menacing Indians, their crazy cargo and the hardships of the journey wipe it off in short order.
New Mexico locations substitute well for Nebraska circa 1855. The rugged heavens and earth captured by Rodrigo Prieto’s lenses bring home the smallness of the humans who brave these vast frontiers.
The sight of a ramshackle wagon with bound crazy women, pulled by mules with horses tied in the back, trudging drearily through a barren, hostile terrain is indeed a picture that says a thousand words.
Jones, like that other actor-turned-filmmaker Clint Eastwood, is a no-fuss-no-feathers kind of director: He keeps things simple and straight forward, prefers minimalism and lets the land speak for itself.
Let’s get the job done, he seems to be saying. Trust the audience to put things together.
There is trust though and then there’s abandonment. The film takes a sharp turn, completely unforeseen, at the end of the second act that casts a pall over the third.
Things do pick up when the eastward-heading pioneers meet up with James Spader’s dandified frontier entrepreneur, Aloysius Duffy. Yet the film ends more with a whimper than a bang as a few head-scratching scenes greet the travelers when they land back in civilization (played nicely by a living-history town near Lumpkin, Georgia).
There is another curiosity: May’s presence in the Nebraska Territory is never accounted for. There is no mention of her being a widow so what brought her there? A single woman was not very likely to set up a homestead much less a fairly successful one all by herself. Did a father or brother leave it to her?
At the film’s periphery are well-known actors, working a few days at most, in the smaller roles. Besides Spader, there’s John Lithgow as the small town minister, Tim Blake Nelson as a sinister frontiersman on the trail and Hailee Steinfeld from “True Grit” as a hotel worker.
Finally there’s Meryl Streep, Gummer’s mother (and Jones’ co-star in “Hope Floats”), as the minister’s wife who takes in the three lost souls. One senses this wife and the youngster in the hotel were meant to have a significant impact on Jones’ rascal character, who has been gradually changing his manner as the journey progresses.
But the ending fizzles out disappointingly and leaves George as unmoored as we found him. This does not, however, take away from the substantial achievement of Jones and his crew in creating an unsettling vision of the Old West and the damaged souls who settled those lands.
Opens: November 14, 2014 (Saban Films and Roadside Attractions)
Production: A Michael Fitzgerald and Tommy Lee Jones production
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, David Dencik, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, Evan Jones, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Screenwriters: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley Oliver
Based on the novel by: Glendon Swarthout
Producers: Peter Brant, Brian Kennedy, Luc Besson, Michael Fitzgerald, Tommy Lee Jones, Brian Kennedy Executive producers: Deborah Dobson Bach, G. Hughes Abell, Richard Romero.
Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Production designer: Meredith Boswell
Music: Marco Beltrami
Costume designer: Lahly Poore
Editor: Roberto Silvi
R rating, 120 minutes