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Homesman, The

D: Tommy Lee Jones / 122m

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

In the Nebraska Territory in the 1850’s, three women – Arabella Sours (Gummer), Theoline Belknap (Otto), and Gro Svendsen (Richter) – fall victim to madness after enduring various hardships. Their pastor, Reverend Dowd (Lithgow), calls upon one of their husbands to take them to Hebron, Iowa where there is a church that will take care of them. With one refusing to do it at all, and the other two proving less than ideal, spinster and homesteader Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) accepts the task, hoping that the “adventure” will help with her own feelings of isolation and depression.

Buddy encounters George Briggs (Jones), and saves him from being hanged for using another man’s home. She persuades him to accompany her and promises him $300 if they make it to Hebron. Briggs agrees but makes for surly company, and challenges Cuddy at every opportunity. However, they come to a mutual understanding, and Briggs’ experience proves invaluable when problems arise, such as one of the women wandering off and being found by a man (Nelson) who wants her for his own, and when they find themselves being watched by Indians.

However, when they find the desecrated grave of an eleven year old girl, Cuddy elects to restore it while Briggs continues on with the women. But Cuddy loses her way and finds herself back at the child’s grave. When she finally catches up with Briggs, she suggests to him that they should marry, but he rejects her offer, telling her – like som many other men before him – that she is too plain and too bossy. Later, she comes to him naked and they have sex. The next morning, Briggs makes a terrible discovery, one that changes the whole nature of the trek to Hebron.

Homesman, The - scene

Achingly stark yet beautiful at the same time, Jones’ adaptation of the novel by Glendon Swarthout, The Homesman, is a melancholic, richly detailed portrait of the hardships of frontier life in the 1850’s, and the different ways in which loneliness can affect even the strongest and most determined of people. Through the journey that Cuddy, Briggs and the three women make, the movie delves into notions of longing, despair, loss and, more curiously, faith (though to a lesser degree than the others). It’s a confident, expertly constructed and devised movie, and it features a handful of strong, finely detailed performances – from Jones, Swank, Streep and Lithgow – and also features some stunning photography courtesy of Rodrigo Prieto, but ultimately it’s a movie that plays too much to convention.

Part of the problem lies in the relationship between Briggs and Cuddy, two people for whom loneliness has become their lives. But where Briggs is comfortable in being alone, Cuddy isn’t, and strives to match herself with someone (at the beginning of the movie it’s another homesteader (Evan Jones), but her desperation is alienating). When she and Briggs meet it’s inevitable that she will offer him the same proposal of marriage it seems she’s made to everyone else. That Briggs will refuse her is another inevitability, and one that robs the moment of any dramatic tension; it also makes Cuddy’s willingness to strip naked and sleep with him too desperate (that Briggs would agree to this approach is unsurprising). What follows is robbed of any potency by Jones’ not allowing any build up to it – it’s presented so matter-of-factly that it makes Cuddy’s importance to the narrative seem irrelevant.

And so the focus remains on Briggs, a curmudgeonly old fox who lacks several degrees of decency, and who develops an unlikely sense of responsibility to the three madwomen (and purely, it seems, because they’ll follow him wherever he goes, a development that’s never really explained). He’s otherwise a selfish, mean-spirited man with no measure of social conscience, but who seems to gain said social conscience without a second thought, and who tries to echo Cuddy’s desperate need to fit in and be accepted by making a similar (uncomfortable) proposal to Steinfeld’s waitress. In Jones’s hands, he’s meant to be a sympathetic character overall, but his personality and way with others is too wayward to afford consistency, and Briggs’ initial roguishness gives way to behaving in whichever way the script needs him to.

With Jones the actor hamstrung by Jones the co-writer – along with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver – it’s left to Jones the director to save the day. If there’s one aspect that he’s very, very good at, it’s in the look of his movies. As in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Jones’ mastery of the frame is simply superb, each shot crafted with a care and attention to light and shade and detail that is consistently impressive. His use of perspective is also finely attuned, the various landscape shots peppered throughout the movie displaying a level of natural beauty married to the width and depth of the image that is often breathtaking. And it’s no different in medium or close up shots: Jones displays such a sure knowledge of what’s he doing and how he’s presenting it that each scene has a rare quality to it, one that few other directors would be able to reproduce.

The movie moves along at a measured pace that gives the cast adequate time to make an impression, and which shows Jones to be generous when sharing the screen with someone else. He gives supporting actors such as Spader, Fichtner and Steinfeld plenty of room to impress, and stands well back to let them do their thing. Though the script gives them little to do except stare off into the distance, Gummer, Otto and Richter, are effective as the three women driven mad by circumstance and hardship (particularly Richter, who has a chilling and very disturbing scene with a sowing needle). They don’t quite achieve the prominence the story allows them at the beginning, but all three characters are convincingly portrayed throughout.

There are casual nods to the sexism of the times, and the grim nature of trying to survive in what was an often harsh, unforgiving environment is well depicted. The final twenty minutes serve more as a coda than a final act, and some viewers may feel this section is a little off-centre as a result, as the three madwomen arrive at their destination and Streep’s affable pastor’s wife takes centre stage (her performance is a reminder, if any were needed, of just how good an actress she is). And the final scene itself ends the movie on an awkward, offhand note that smacks of contrivance rather than a satisfying end to the story.

Rating: 7/10 – absorbing if uneven, The Homesman scores highly because of Jones’ ability as a director and his often glorious use of the camera; with its story often straying off into some unwanted dead ends, this journey is only occasionally involving, and only occasionally matches the commitment made by its cast.