Tommy Lee Jones has given the world another Western. His second feature as director, The Homesman is based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout. It tells of a rough army deserter who helps to transport three women back East from the American Frontier. No guessing who plays this wastrel-cum-hero in the film. The female actors might all be under forty, but gruff old George Briggs is still a wandering loner played by an actor aged 68.
The premise of the film is faintly ridiculous. Three young wives in the tiny frontier community have simultaneously gone mad. The vicar decides that the best that can be done for them is to transport them to Iowa. For reasons unspecified once they get there everything will be better. The women's husbands are fine with this solution, yet none of them can take the time to deliver the women.
Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy who volunteers to undertake this long journey with horse, wagon and three patients. A pious spinster with a successful farm, she goes round the town taking the women from their children and husbands. Nevertheless she is seen as some sort of saint. Before long she has set off with her cargo of women, all of whom are generic lunatics with little back stories. (Lost three children. Went mad, is an example of what we know about one of them).
The nineteenth century road trip barely gets started before Jones joins the group. This is an odd development as Cuddy has quite happily agreed to this arduous journey with no help from the other people in the settlement. Yet within moments of meeting the distinctly less-than-savoury Briggs she decides she needs his company and help. He isn't keen, but as he owes her a bit of a favour he goes along. I suppose he is clearly a movie character who will find some unexpected humanity within him, but Cuddy shouldn't be able to see that.
Widescreen shots of the Nebraska Territories pick out the stark natural landscape, putting the small, roughly made truck, the hazardous journey and human concerns in perspective. Swank plays the bossy Cuddy as a brave woman, certain in the power of God. The women being transported are interchangeable and vacant, although one shouts God will Strike you Down at intervals. Jones convinces as an elderly fellow who is only brought along to make a film.
The tone darkens after an incident that changes everything. This develops out of the absurd idea that Briggs and the wagon has to get going one afternoon – as though there is a strict timetable for this lengthy journey across endless plains. He actually has no need to get anywhere and could easily wait for Cuddy, who is filling in a defiled grave with a shovel. The Cuddy we have seen so far in the film would surely order him to help. With no where in particular to get to and Cuddy definitely in charge, Briggs driving the wagon away merely happens to enable the plot line that follows.
The film broaches questions of duty, care and the role of women. Cuddy is a strong female character, yet it is good old Briggs who is the film's hero. The mad women are not analysed or examined. They are just given to us 'mad' and 'mad' they stay for the duration.
Some ageing movie stars have the influence to keep making films. Others, particularly females, do not. This results in vehicles like The Homesman that have no vital premise and flout believability a bit too much.