"Girlie, tough ain't enough."

The Homesman
(USA, 120 min.)
Dir. Tommy Lee Jones, Writ. Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver
Starring: Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones, Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter, John Lithgow, and Meryl Streep.
 Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones star in The Homesman.
Courtesy of Mongrel Media. Photo credit: Dawn Jones
Cormac McCarthy writes that America is no country for old men. Men, creatures of violence and civil misconduct, are just as much the agents of American madness as they are the victims of it. America’s frontier mythology is a perverse thing that embraces the open expansiveness of the west as an endless panorama of endless possibilities. In Canada, this landscape is seen as something hostile and menacing. Perhaps that’s why Americans are more prone to violence, since their national psyche encourages them to strap on their boots and jump into the fray while Canadians are more content to shut the doors. (It’s cold out there!) One needs to be tough to survive the frontier, but as western icon turned cranky-old-man Clint Eastwood might say, “Girlie, tough ain’t enough.”

If America is no country for old men, it’s certainly no place for women, or at least that’s the way the men of America willed it to be when they settled down and “tamed” the Wild West. America is still a man’s world today and a glimpse at Tommy Lee Jones’s contemporary western The Homesman reveals a hardship of frontier life that rarely finds its way into cultural mythology: the roles of women in the west and the hell they endured while creating cities from scratch.

Jones’s adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s literary masterwork The Homesman is a true anomaly in the genre. This distinctly feminist western is a fine adaptation of Swarthout’s novel, as Jones honours the author’s deconstruction of frontier life with a richly cinematic rendering. The Homesman follows the same kooky odyssey of the novel as resilient pioneer woman Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) bravely (or foolheartedly, perhaps) accepts a mission to lead three of the woman of her small village back to the east after they each succumb to fits of madness brought on the harsh winter on the frontier.

Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto), for example, suffers a breakdown and chucks her newborn child down the shit hole when the frigid winter leaves her and her husband with neither cows nor corn to feed their children, never mind another mouth. Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter), of whom Jones seems the fondest as a director, loses control when her domineering husband (David Dencik) tosses her dead mother into the cold for refrigeration. Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), finally, goes catatonic after losing all three of her children to diphtheria. Swartout’s novel features a fourth woman aboard Mary Bee’s crazy train, but the adaptation successfully excises her storyline (she goes mad following an attack by wolves) in a move that smartly allows the rests of The Homesman to make its way to the screen. This adaptation is largely faithful to the novel, but it’s also a smart contemporary reading that situates the plights of these women into the state of feminism in the present.

If The Homesman removes one of the four exhausted women, it capably adds one with Mary Bee. Mary Bee, perhaps more palpably so in the film than in the book, succumbs to madness herself while leading these women back to the city. Mary Bee is a strong pioneer, for she tends a successful field of crops and prospers in a fine home with good food on the table—she can afford canned peaches—but she enjoys a comparably lower esteem of success in her budding village as the lone spinster amongst the pioneers. The Homesman introduces Mary Bee as she courts a local bachelor, and from the no-nonsense manner in which she lays out her case for marriage like a business proposal, one suspects that Mary Bee has few romantic inclinations but strains under the moors of life circa 1855 that define a woman’s worth by her husband and children. (It’s worth noting that all there of the madwomen in her care lose their sanity when they lose their grips on motherhood.) Faced with the madness to which she herself could easily succumb if any half-witted man on the frontier were to accept her proposal, Mary Bee confronts the emptiness of Manifest Destiny as she sees nothing but a barren horizon. American ideology is backwards, The Homesman suggests, as Mary Bee and her company ride east across the country, rather than the conventional westward trajectory of frontier flicks that envision a trek into the unknown as a kind of rugged progress.

Swank gives one of her best performances as the tough Mary Bee. She’s strong, smart, and eloquently composed when the journey begins, but Swank slowly fractures Mary Bee’s resilience as the odyssey of The Homesman becomes a trek into madness. Particularly in the film’s surreal turning point does Swank handle Mary Bee’s breaking point like an expert markswoman. Mary Bee, as she does with her bizarre proposal and mannered niceties with the cowardly men in her village, politely defers to the man accompanying her on her mission, George Briggs (Jones), as she does everything she can to be recognized as a beautiful, desirable woman, rather than a plain homely girl tainted by her independence and true grit. The Homesman ripples with a dramatic implosion when Briggs looks down on Mary Bee’s strength as a weakness, and the film takes a dramatic turn as the gravity of Mary Bee and Briggs’s mission hits the homesman hard.

The film puts a mighty task in the hands of Jones to play the role of the world-weary westerner once again as the fates of the three women and Mary Bee fall in his hands along their difficult journey. Jones’s Briggs, by the end of the film, faces an unpleasant awakening akin to that of his beleaguered Sheriff in No Country for Old Men. The Homesman, though, opens Briggs’s eyes to the agency one has in making a change for the better. Whereas No Country’s Sheriff Bell dreams the world as a place of unspeakable violence that he cannot prevent, The Homesman’s Briggs learns that the madness to which the women in his care succumbed is a man-made illness.

One especially fine scene for Jones sees his devastated homesman confront the sins of his past as he offers advice to a strong young girl (Hailee Steinfeld) whose spunk reminds him in earnest of Mary Bee. It’s one of the most emotionally vulnerable scenes of Jones’s career, and the subtlety with which he plays it is also one of his finest feats of direction: The Homesman might end with Briggs going west, but it’s all about the women who are lost along the way.

Jones delivers a robust and unconventional western that deconstructs the foundational myths of the genre while elegiacally honouring the realities of frontier living. The cinematography by Rodrigo Pietro is both haunting and sumptuous, while the understated score by Marco Beltrami guides the film’s sudden shifts in tone by punctuating the soundtrack with fits of madness. Much of The Homesman rests squarely on its actors, though, with Swank and Jones headlining a formidable ensemble of heavy players, including Meryl Streep who appears at the end of the film as a pastor’s wife charged with taking the women into her care. The warmth of Streep’s screen presence is like stumbling upon an oasis at the end of a long journey. (And it’s a pleasure to see her share the screen with her daughter Grace, who is clearly going places.) Streep infects the film with a relief of kindness that’s sorely absent from the frontier town that Mary Bee and Briggs depart at the beginning of their journey. Tough ain’t enough in the Wild West, but civility goes an awfully long way.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Homesman is now playing in limited release in Toronto and Vancouver.
(Ottawa release TBA.)

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