The Homesman is an uncompromising vision of human nature that, nonetheless, seems a little too selective in what it wants to look at. Even so, it's as good a Western that came out in 2014 (and since that's a bar that basically does not exist, let's also say it's very good in its own right, too).
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Written by Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver, and Tommy Lee Jones (based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout)
With Hillary Swank (Mary Bee Cuddy) and Tommy Lee Jones (the homesman d/b/a "George Briggs")
Spoiler alert: moderate
Fuck you, America!
Lots of movies are based on novels, but The Homesman feels "literary" in a very specific way, namely the way I've principally approached literature (or been approached by literature)—that is, having English teachers force me to perform close readings of various books and then discuss the themes and symbolism thus identified within them. It's a film that combines unmissable political, philosophical, and historical commentary along with a pair of deeply enigmatic character arcs and a bevy of plot elements that feel like they ought to be symbolic of something, even if their meaning winds up rather difficult to decode (and then a little eye-rollingly obvious once you do). The Homesman is more interested in forcing a conversation about all these things when the movie's over than in being a clear and coherent communication in itself. Of course, that conversation will include a number of essay questions. Hope you took notes.
1. Mary Bee Cuddy and her leveraged hired gun, George Briggs, undertake to transport three mentally ill women from their former homes in the Nebraska Territory to a sanitarium in Iowa. What do each of these three women represent? (Model answer: You mean aside from the odd notion that grief-driven mental illness manifests so often as a catatonic condition that three separate individuals in a small community could suffer three separate tragedies that would render all three mostly mute and insensate? Well, then, thanks to their silence and narrative unimportance, individually they represent jack and shit. As a unit, however, they represent the contention that women on the frontier were treated as livestock—primarily breeding stock, at that—and this drove them toward madness. Of course, the irony is that using them as symbols is about the closest the movie ever gets to treating them like human beings, too. Most of the time it prefers the three women as a collective maguffin, because The Homesman is about properly foregrounding the co-leads.)
2. What does The Homesman have to say about conditions on the American frontier in 1854? (Model answer: It espouses a basically Hobbesian viewpoint that when human beings are returned to a state of nature, they will devolve immediately into miserable scum, and that even when a moral code such as Christianity is imported into this state of nature from an outside civilized society, that code will be destroyed by the prevailing savagery of the environment. Furthermore, anyone who self-selects to populate the frontier is suspect to begin with.)
3. What does James Spader's appearance as a slightly-foppish antagonist in the last thirty minutes of the film signify? (Model answer: That it had been an hour since anything awesome and properly Western had happened, and when it does, it's fantastic, so what the hell gives you the right to complain? Anyway, it's also about America, and the encroaching East's rejection of all the unpleasant men who won the West with their less-sophisticated violence and cruelty. But for my money, it's mostly about a great action scene.)
4. Bonus: Why do you think the second act concludes in the way that it does? (Model answer: Sorry, this is a low-spoiler zone!)
The point I'm belaboring is that The Homesman is a little didactic and a little dry, but it does have something to say, even if it's blunt to the point of bludgeoning in how it says it. The Homesman clearly fancies itself a feminist Western. Now, it is that thing, but it's more truthful to say it's female-centric, in that it focuses on Mary Bee Cuddy, a strong-willed single woman with her own claim in the Nebraska Territory. In regards to its other women, I've already noted that at their lowest they're props to Mary Bee and her relationship with George Briggs, and at they're highest they're one-note emblems for The Homesman's vision of the American West as a slow-motion holocaust.
Beyond that, it's far too attuned to the horrific values of that holocaust for it to be feminist—or humanist—except in a strictly negative sense, in that it depicts events and attitudes that we immediately recognize as morally grotesque. It's bound to end up extremely depressing, naturally, and while the precise form this takes is shocking, it's not nearly as surprising that the shattering tragedy The Homesman deals out barely manages to make so much as a mark on any of the other machine-like human beings in its story.
There's something of the arch and more than a touch of the art film to The Homesman, then. (The elliptical flashbacks to the ill women's pasts are the film's low point, powerful in their content and awkward and somewhat confusing in how clumsily they're shoved in.) But, overall (and surprisingly), The Homesman's severity winds up one of its strengths: in some scenes it's so detached and clinical in how it approaches the endless abominations it presents that it feels less like a narrative film than it does a documentary made by faintly disgusted aliens.
In many respects, that's exactly what The Homesman is trying to be. There are those that say that presentism—the tendency to judge the people of the past by the standards of the present—is the great sin of contemporary history. The Homesman doesn't agree with this at all, and neither do I, and that's one of the big reasons why I kind of love this movie: we really are so much better than the people it depicts. Never mind that they're fictional strawmen built to make the case; it's no mistake that almost too often The Homesman presents itself as footage of animals in their native habitat. Meanwhile, Tommy Lee Jones directs with the intent to capture the brutal, pristine beauty of the Great Plains with the ponderous stateliness of an old-fashioned prestige Western. Except now that beauty is contrasted with infinity-percent more onscreen marital rapes while the victim's mother lays alongside her in the marital bed.
Now, those who know me know I'm not much for miserablist cinema, especially when it trafficks in rather contrived misery, but let's be clear: The Homesman is so superior to that other 2014 attempt to deconstuct a quintessentially masculine, American genre, Fury, that it throws into the sharpest of reliefs just how much the tank movie really, really sucked. Jones and his screenwriters never suspend their moral judgment here; and unlike David Ayer, they are always aware that what they're showing us is, in fact, repugnant.
More importantly, there also remain two recognizable humans in the West of The Homesman (and that's two more humans than the wartime Germany of Fury). Sadly for them, what it does ultimately deliver to poor Cuddy and Briggs is a cynical tale of no redemption.
Their interplay together could have been as unpleasant as all the rest, but it isn't—thank goodness, since it is the bulk of the film. For that, we thank the screenwriters, who rein in the nastiness a little for this central relationship, but—more vitally—we thank Hillary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones. Swank is especially good, embodying the loneliness Cuddy's been burdened with as what seems to be God's punishment for her self-sufficiency. (That said, there's a slight dissonance that the most appropriate actor they could find to play "plain" was Swank. Swank is perhaps not gorgeous by rarefied Hollywood standards, but she still requires a viewer to pretend that the woman her pair of unimpressed marriage prospects see is not exactly the woman we out here in audienceland can see, because what we see is easily the most attractive human being in her particular Nebraska shittown, male or female, single or otherwise. And not only because she manages not to be completely covered in actual shit, either—although this certainly helps.)
Granted, Cuddy and Briggs are warm toward each other only in comparison to their active denial of relationships with everyone else. But The Homesman does strike some light notes with the pair. Occasionally, they even present as comic relief—at least within The Homesman's context, anyway. The single most amusing moment in the whole film is an editing-driven joke, coming approximately three seconds after an attempted rapist gets his head blown off.
Its sense of humor may be as bleak as its sense of drama, then, but these gestures toward watchability leaven The Homesman. In the end, it's miserablism with a point—and, better yet, some semblance of a heartbeat, too. It's an obvious point, yes, but also one that it prosecutes with discretion. A great movie might have been less messy—and involved less homework—but The Homesman that does exist nevertheless justifies its ugliness in a way that all too many films devoted to human weakness and evil simply do not.