Mark Reviews Movies

The Homesman


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tommy Lee Jones

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Jo Harvey Allen, Barry Corbin, David Dencik, William Fichtner, Evan Jones, Caroline Lagerfelt, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Jesse Plemons, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity)

Running Time: 2:02

Release Date: 11/14/14 (limited); 11/21/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 20, 2014

Life in the Nebraska Territory circa 1855 would be tough for even the most capable. The Homesman tells the tale of three women who are, as one of the gossiping biddies in town puts it, "the Lord's least capable." To the outside world, the women have been cursed with insanity. One witnessed three of her children die of disease over the course of three days. One killed her newborn baby. No one seems to ask what caused madness in the third woman, although the death of her mother seems an obvious reason. They hear tell of her talking to the dead woman, and that's cause enough for her to be included with a woman who is nearly comatose from grief and another who committed infanticide.

They are unwelcome in a time when medicine cannot treat them and doctors cannot understand their suffering. They are in a place where they are burdens and people cannot abide a burden as heavy as inexplicable, incurable mental illness. The answer to the problem of the three women is simple and easy: Put them in a locked wagon with bars on the windows, bring them across the Missouri River, and dump them at a church in Iowa where the reverend has promised to help them get back east.

Surely someone there can care for them. Maybe their husbands will write to ask how they are. The way the men are either apathetic or grateful when the wagon comes 'round to take their wives, though, suggests something else. They'll probably react in the same way the rest of the town is likely to do. They'll find occasion to speak in hushed tones about that terrible season one year when one woman just stopped living, another talked to the ghost of her dead mother, and yet another murdered her own innocent flesh and blood.

Eventually, they'll forget. They'll forget because life in this time and place is already difficult enough. They'll forget because, in their minds, the women aren't worth remembering except as a warning.

The women are the most dramatic examples of social outcasts in the film, but the story revolves around two other, ordinary examples. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is what the folks call a spinster. She is in her 30s, unmarried, and without any marital prospects. She has been courting a man with home-cooked meals, songs accompanied by her tapping on a tapestry made to look like a piano keyboard, and the promise of her sizeable capital. He coldly rejects her marriage proposal, stating that she is both plain and bossy.

When the local minister (John Lithgow) suggests the men of his parish draw lots to determine who will take the three women across the river, Mary Bee takes the place of one man who refuses. She argues that she can shoot as well as any man and that she is better suited to care for the women. Fortune chooses her to perform the task.

While bringing the wagon back to her farm, Mary Bee happens upon another outcast. He is George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones, who also co-wrote the screenplay and directed), whom Mary Bee saves from hanging after some vigilantes catch him claim jumping. For saving his life, Mary Bee enlists George to accompany her on the trek. At the moment, George only asks for cartridges for his pistol, in the likely event they come across anyone who wants to do them harm, and whiskey to keep him in the drunken state to which he has become accustomed.

The wagon with the pariahs rolls across the plain. The crazy women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) wail and quarrel, and along the way, Jones provides flashes of their pasts, forcing us to question the circumstances of their exile.

Perhaps the woman whose children died could have been spared her grief if her husband (Jesse Plemons) had paid her any mind. Perhaps the woman who killed her baby may not have believed such an act was necessary if her husband (William Fichtner) had not been so stubborn about keeping a farm with dead livestock and crops. Perhaps the death of her mother has less to do with the third woman's madness than her husband's (David Dencik) insistence that she bear him a child—an insistence that, to any reasonable eye, looks like rape.

The time and place may be to blame, but there is no avoiding the role the cruelty of man has to play in all of this. The screenplay by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, and Wesley A. Oliver (based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout) is set up like a travelogue that repeats that theme time and again. There's a lone rider (Tim Blake Nelson) who believes the old rule about possession being nine-tenths of the law applies to a woman he finds on the prairie. There's the manager (James Spader) of a planned hotel in the middle of nowhere who refuses the party, "The milk of human kindness be damned."

Jones' approach to the material is understated to such a degree that the narrative seems to ramble. It's not until we begin to see Mary Bee as a woman who, in the eyes of this society, would easily be a candidate for being in the wagon with the three women that we realize this is not the tale of three exiles but of five. There's a sudden swapping of central characters just before the third act that solidifies that notion. In its subdued way, The Homesman is a melancholy tale of lost souls who find temporary unity only to end up where they began: alone and forgotten in a world that has no use for them.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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