Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Cast: Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones
Release Date: November 20th, 2014
In the Old West, this site there were certain types of people. There were outlaws. There were sheriffs. There were wives and mothers struggling to keep their families safe from harm. All of these characters have been portrayed time and again in countless Western films. Missing from so many of those films though is the atypical community member who inevitably existed but who doesn’t fit into a stereotypical Western role. One such outcast is featured prominently in the unique new Western, prescription The Homesman.
The outcast here is an unmarried women in her early 30s, who is a blessing to her community but feels completely alone at home. Played by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, Mary Bee Cuddy is a woman who admits, “I live uncommonly alone.” In one of the film’s first scenes, she cooks dinner for a local farmer and despite the fact that she doesn’t know him well, she offers herself up for marriage– presenting life with her as a consolation prize, noting that she is a hard worker who will treat him right. He rejects the offer.
Cuddy is well-liked in the community but people look down on her as if there’s something automatically wrong with her because she’s unmarried and has no children. When a few local women face psychological issues (one of them attempts to kill her own child), there’s a discussion about moving the women to Iowa, where they can be taken care of. No one wants to make the five-week journey across the wild plains with three “crazy” women and Cuddy, who begrudgingly offers to participate in a drawing over who will do the task, is forced to lead the expedition.
Tommy Lee Jones, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay, co-stars in the film as George Briggs, an irresponsible local whose life Cuddy saves and who promises to travel with her across the country.
Jones manages to build a really provocative story out of Cuddy’s real life (the film is based on a true story). There are elements of classic Westerns here but they are thoughtfully used in a story that is very real and quite painful to watch. In our modern society, Cuddy would be considered a hero for the tough life she withstands and for her kindhearted and delicate spirit. In the Old Wast, she was abused and overlooked because she didn’t fit into a stereotypical female role. As Briggs notes to her, “You’re plain as an old tin pail and you’re bossy.” Briggs, who is hurtful and hateful to her, is– despite himself– the only one who is willing to stand by her during the arduous journey.
Swank delivers a strong performance here but it’s Jones who stands out as a filmmaker and as an actor here for being willing to tell this powerful story, despite the fact that it’s not an easily marketable idea. One of the characters notes, “People like to talk about death and taxes but when it comes to crazy, they stay hushed up.” It’s sad how true that sentiment was and continues to be today. Jones was willing to take on this subject and a unique heroine who was thrust into a task that she’s oftentimes ill-prepared for.
The Homesman is unrepentant, unrelenting and engrossing and it’s a movie that both adheres to and breaks through old stereotypes to tell a difficult story that was surely worth telling.
Review by: John Hanlon