The film adaptation of the award winning novel The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout, directed by Tommy Lee Jones presents a a bleak, ironic and desolate view of the Nebraska Territory in the 1830s in an atypical Western that strikes against genre in a refreshing way. In his fourth foray into directing, Jones has created a surprising, unusual and always fascinating film narrative about the nature of survival and the inner fortitude it takes to hold on to one’s center amidst trying circumstances and inner conflicts. The Homesman made its East Coast premiere at the 22nd Hamptons International Film Festival and was the festival’s Sunday centerpiece film.
At the fulcrum of this quirky, complex film is Jones’ stark portrait of a pious, single, 31-year-old, Mary Bee Cuddy (in a role thoughtfully and exceptionally acted by Hillary Swank). Cuddy is the forerunner of the “modern woman,” and the amazing characterization touches upon the stresses women confront when they dare to transcend the typical feminine projection of the simpering, helpless, dependent little girl in their interactions with men. Thanks to Swank’s portrayal and Jones’ direction and adaption, Mary Bee Cuddy’s depiction is a thrilling one to watch as this singular women develops along an arc throughout the film even to the conclusion. Though Cuddy is not present at the end, the audience is forced to consider her impact, her strength and what she stands for in the nature of who she is and why she makes the choices she does.
We are introduced to Mary Bee as a homesteader in the Nebraska Territory replete with all of the hazards of the times before the Civil War with slavery and the Indian troubles active; the land is undeveloped, harsh and unyielding. Jones’ cinematic choices are spot on in revealing the stark beauty and cold harshness of the landscape, a coldness inherent and malevolent, one which the characters must confront and overcome as much as they must till the soil and tease out a productive harvest to sustain themselves. As Jones emphasizes, such terrain and hard scrabble life punishes everyone; some are able to survive better than others if they have resilience, inner strength and dogged determination. For women it is especially a brutal and unforgiving existence which chews them up and spits them out into a wilderness beyond the worth of living. Without love, compassion and tenderness such an existence in such a territory can alienate, drive one mad or murderous.
Mary Bee works diligently and steadfastly to farm her land which she and her community (headed up by her pastor played by John Lithgow), have obtained sacrificing the pleasures of living in the developed East to possibly increase their prosperity. Mary Bee keeps some livestock and is sustained emotionally by the religious community to which she belongs. She is an archetypal woman of clever resourcefulness and power, but in developing these qualities to mastery because she had to, she has sacrificed abilities in the softer graces, having thrown off womanly deceitfulness to “get a man.” We understand this early on in the film when Mary Bee invites a potential suitor (though he is beneath her in his talents, unattractiveness and loutish manner), for a delicious dinner. She proposes they marry as a viable economic arrangement toward continual prosperity. It is a sound and well thought out proposition, though an unromantic one as there is no talk of love. It should be alluring to any man considering that he would have access to all of her resources, including her excellent homemaking skills. As direct as she is with him, the “intended” is direct with her, but to the point of insult. The audience sees he is holding out for romance, illusion and sex; he will never marry her because he says, “she’s as plain as a pail and she’s bossy.”
The humor of his response is priceless. Swank is hardly plain, so we realize her “plainness” is not the problem, her independence, dominance and resourcefulness is. So is her inability to strike up an illusion of femininity that could seduce him. She is his obvious superior and without guile. In marriage her intelligence would dominate his dullness and there would be no “apparent” softness, flattery or deceit to mitigate it. Rather than be “oppressed” by her brilliance, something his ego could not tolerate, he is going to remain “happily” in his present state until a “real woman” comes along who fits the type. Mary Bee takes it all in, but we understand as the film progresses that rather than accept the wisdom of being alone and prospering on her own without having to shore up the excess baggage of a lout who would be a tremendous liability, the rejection gnaws at her. Most probably his offensive insult to her feminity contributes to spurring her to take on an unsound project whose odds of success are haphazard.
When her pastor discusses with his congregation that three wives have gone insane from horrific traumas during their time in the territory, he asks for volunteers to bring the women back East where they will be taken care of by others. No man will step up for the trip; the husbands won’t help their wives taking them out of the bleak environment and the hardness of their lives which has driven them into the abyss. It is as if the husbands could care less about restoring them to sanity and a happier condition; they just want them removed, for they have become more trouble than the chattel they are worth. In flashback scenes we are led to understand what drove each of the women to derangement. Mary Bee is in direct contrast to these three who were looking for a better life with a man, but whose disappointment and horror of their circumstances (in some instances exacerbated by the men), destroyed their minds.
Whether it is a matter that Mary Bee is destined to involve herself in because of her inner coldness and loneliness in this harsh land, the rejection by her marriage candidate, or whether she is the only one capable of doing such an act of charity, bravery and mental strength, Mary agrees to take on the project alone. Even though many feel she is “as good as a man” in her skills and talents, Jones has set up an interesting parallel between the men and women of that time, threading themes that are very present for us today. The overriding questions about her actions foment interest and create suspense keeping us alert to the next bend in the river of action.
Mary Bee begins her journey with the women (Grace Gummer, Mirando Otto, Sonja Richter), who are “apparently” so demented they must be locked in the covered wagon, one tied up because she is violent. Now we understand that this five week journey in the wilderness against potential attacks by Indians, the winter, male marauders and violating trouble makers is an undertaking that is life threatening for all of them. In a bit of a contrived plot device, Mary Bee runs into George Biggs (Jones is a natural for this part and slides into its nuances and modulations with his easy acting craft and intelligence), who is at the point of death, sitting on his skittish horse under a tree, hands tied behind his back with a noose around his neck ready to hang if the horse coughs. Wisely, Mary Bee realizes this man is a rapscallion thief or near-do-well, and she bargains with him; in exchange for his life, he must accompany her to Iowa; she neglects telling him the particulars. Desperate, he agrees, but later, when Biggs finds out about the insane women and tries to back out, Mary Bee sweetens the pot with a promise of money once they’ve delivered their charges.
These two are polar opposites, and it is only because of the money that the “street smart,” conniving and blunt Biggs stays with this domineering but logically clever and admirable Mary Bee who gets under his skin. For her part Mary Bee is not thrilled with Biggs, but like much of her life, she tolerates him, makes do and with her intelligence gets around his personality to the point where they are able to successfully progress along the journey with the demented, who at times attempt to kill each other, at times attempt to escape. There are obstacles along the route and Mary Bee appears to be holding her own; Biggs, encouraged by the nature of this do-gooding act and Cuddy’s acceptance appears to be getting kinder.
At length, the two form a weird relationship and the audience prepares itself for the possibility that perhaps Mary Bee has found a gent she can encourage who might fill her lonely nights, even though he is rough around the edges, though not without humor. It is around this time that Jones throws several boulders into what we anticipated was a fairly still pond; the biggest boulder flips around Mary Bee’s well being and fortitude and sends her plunging into a downward spiral from which she must save herself. She manages to recoup, but the ordeal has rattled her and we understand that the spirit of derangement on the women has perhaps engulfed her as well. It is at this point that Mary Bee proposes to Biggs in the same way that she proposed to the other cowboy at the film’s beginning. This scene comes out of nowhere; on the other hand, there is enough depth in both characterizations for us to understand the how and why of the events that follow.
This is no spoiler alert. You will have to see the film to discover his response and afterwards, hers. The result is poignant, alarming and unforgettable. The women eventually do end up in Iowa, however, there has been tribulation, sacrifice, callous inhospitality by an outrageous, wealthy developer (James Spader is particularly loathsome), rage, violence and a completely unpredictable conclusion that is unexpected like much of the twists and shocks of the film.
Jones has collided the past with our present in The Homesman which appears to be a Western because of all the accountrements, the plot, the sets, the costumes, but whose characterizations, themes and concepts are very modern. Jones reveals that what it takes to survive and thrive are completely different. The survivors make it through by any means possible but there is an inner loss that remains elusive as each successive battle to keep death at bay weathers and hardens the soul. For those who appear to thrive and prosper because of their particular gifts and talents, one never knows their inner weather, storms or conflicts and where these will drive them. Certainly, The Homesman will leave you haunted in its pathos and the irony that come what may, life does go on with or without our approval.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.