Set in the Nebraska Territory of the 1850s, Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman is about hardship on the plains and the difficulty of maintaining civilized relationships on the frontier. There are many movies about the time period of the post Civil War west – with cowboys, farmers and railroads. Pre-civil war, we are in the transition from pioneers and frontiersmen to the farmer settlers who probably would have been better off staying at home. The movie captures the challenges of farming this particular area of the Great Plains. Treeless and unlike anything the Europeans were familiar with, the Nebraska Territory was the heart of what was called the Great American Desert, not the Breadbasket that it known as today. The difficulty of this life takes a mental toll on the wives of three farmers, who need to be taken back east in the hopes that returning them to their families will restore their health.
Hillary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a woman settler and one of the few successful farmers in the region. Educated, she has some knowledge of how to get crops to grow. An anomaly among the women, she’s one of the few women I think who have ever been put on film in a Western who is trying to maintain a farm on her own as a single woman, not a widow. Unfortunately, she has developed a reputation as being plain and bossy and none of the local single farmers are interested in marrying her. Bossy I can see – but I had a difficult time imaging her as “plain” when compared with the other women. But this is a Hollywood movie. A little suspension of disbelief is in order. She is educated, obviously reading up on the latest of agriculture, and misses the trees and music of her life back east. She appears to be strong, but as the story progresses, she also shows how much this life has taken its toll.
The other major character in the film is George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones). When he is first introduced, he is a claim jumper who loses a siege on a house he has occupied. The vigilantes leave him to be hung by his horse. When Mary Bee cuts him down, she makes him promise to accompany her on the journey to Hebron, Iowa to drop off the three women with a Methodist minister’s wife, who has agreed to help arrange travel home of the three charges.
The two set out on a five-week journey in late may, barely provisioned for their journey. Since there aren’t really any roads, they simply head east, trying to get to the Missouri River as directly as possible. They could take a route that would bring them closer to other settlements, but that road will be no safer for a man traveling with four women than heading overland. It is in interesting journey, where everyone they come in contact with is either callous or dangerous.
The experience I think best captures the time period comes late in the film when, starving, the remnant of the troupe comes across a lone hotel that is booked for the night. James Spader, as the hotel’s proprietor, is expecting a company of investors and the low status of the uninvited guests means that they simply cannot be accommodated, or even provisioned. This was the time of great Midwestern booster-ism, where crazy men pretended to be visionaries, mapping out villages and calling them cities. The speculative city with the hotel is mapped with future streets bearing the names of the great cities and monuments of the world, although we can’t tell why this place should prosper. It looks exactly like every other place in the film, and it could be located anywhere else. But it is enough to have a dream to be haughty and condescending in this country. George Briggs eventually makes them pay completely for turning them away.
The Homesman offers great performances by Swank and Jones and is worth watching for them and a little bit of the story of women in the West. I expect a few award nominations for Swank in particular. But overall, I found the film a little confusing in structure. The preparation for the journey seems to take longer than it should, and the flashbacks in which we learn about the lives of the insane women in the wagon are told out of sequence, which is more taxing than insightful. If I had another issue with the movie, it is a lack of discussion of slavery. It isn’t until we get to Iowa that the issue is even hinted at, but given that the Nebraska Territory was established as a free for all territory post compromise, I found absence of opinion on the issue to be unusual. Perhaps the characters would be less compelling had we known what they were thinking.
*** of five.
IMDB: The Homesman