A cross between an old school western and a Merrie Melodies cartoon, “The Homesman” is the latest from actor and director Tommy Lee Jones. A rough and tumble look at the harsh realities faced by women in frontier life it sheds light on a little seen aspect of life in the old west. It features a terrific performance from Hilary Swank and a spot on impression of Yosemite Sam from Jones.
Swank is Mary Bee Cuddy, a woman from New York State, now living in Loup City, Nebraska. She’s cultured, wealthy in land and know-how and unmarried. She’s well regarded in the town—one local says she’s “as good a man as many man hereabouts”—but her overtures at romance fall flat. She proposes marriage to Gam Sours (Jesse Plemons) with the caveat, “I won’t take no for an answer,” only to be rebuffed. “You’re as plain as an old tin pale,” he says, “and bossy.”
That may be so, but she has faired better than several other local women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) whose fragile mental states have been pushed to the limit by the grim reality of life in Loup City. Cuddy volunteers to transport them on a five-week journey to Iowa where they can be cared for properly.
On the way she meets army deserter, coward and all round scoundrel George “Yosemite” Briggs (Jones). She saves his life and in return he reluctantly agrees to make the journey with them.
“The Homesman” starts off as one thing, a look at Cuddy’s life as it intertwines with these mentally ill women but shifts story wise and tonally with the introduction of Jones’s character. What could have been a tale of female empowerment does a u-turn, shifting the focus to Jones and his cartoonish portrayal of the hard-drinking, jig dancing Briggs. What begins as an unconventional western becomes even less conventional as Jones cuts ghastly scenes of women dumping babies into outhouse holes against more jocular dialogue.
Swank, when she is given something to do, does it extremely well and Tim Blake Nelson as an amorous cowhand is menacing and funny, which seems to be the offbeat tone Jones was searching for, but never quite finds.
Story and character wise “The Homesman” is muddier than the rough terrain it takes place on.