By Eleanor Ringel Cater
As an actor, Tommy Lee Jones’ career has been hit and miss. For every “The Fugitive” or “Men in Black,” he’s had a “Man of the House” or “Men in Black 3.” (“MIB II” wasn’t all that either.)
But as a director, he’s batted it out of the park. Twice. First with the eloquent and little-seen “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” and now with the hardscrabble brilliance of “The Homesman.”
The setting is the Nebraska Territory about a decade or so before the Civil War. Don’t look for the “fruited plains” of “America the Beautiful.” This land is as barren and unforgiving as a spinster’s hope chest.
I use the word “spinster” — in its way, as ugly and dated as “colored” — on purpose. Because, in the parlance of the time, that is what Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is.
Yes, she has her own spread, which is the match of any man’s in the area. And yes, she works it as hard as any man, her plow pulled along by a pair of mules she’s named — in keeping with her pious nature — Grace and Redemption.
Still, she doesn’t relish growing old alone; it doesn’t appeal to her practical nature. So she courts a neighbor with dinner and a peach pie for dessert — made, she says with a note of pride and slight astonishment — “out of peaches from a can!”
Her guest is only mildly impressed. He’s even less so when she suggests, with a certain self-reliant confidence, they marry. All but choking on his canned peaches, he gracelessly replies that she’s too plain and too bossy (he will not be the only man to voice this clueless appraisal). No, he’ll seek a bride back East — East, in this case, being Iowa.
His words could count as foreshadowing. Within days, Mary Bee will be headed back East (Iowa) herself. But she’s not seeking a spouse. Rather, she’s agreed to escort three farmwives back that way so some good church people (among them, Meryl Streep) can send them on home to whatever relatives they may have.
The women have become, well, inconvenient. More to the point, they have gone mad — driven into the unquiet of their own heads by the land, the weather, the work, the men.
The local reverend (John Lithgow, quietly strong) holds a short-straw lottery of sorts to see who will be their escort. Since Mary Bee is as able and unencumbered as any of the men, she takes part. And wins…or rather, loses.
In a nice touch, the ones who object most to her taking this arduous task are the church dowagers who cluck disapprovingly like a bevy of old hens.
By chance, right as her journey begins, Mary Bee happens on George Briggs (Jones), a drunk, a scoundrel and a claim-jumper who’s about to be lynched. Removing one noose, she hands him another: he must accompany her on her mission so she’ll have someone to hunt, guide and spell her. And help handle her charges, who range from catatonic to bestial fury.
What follows is a bit like a landlocked “The African Queen.” But with its own twists. And twists they are — ranging from farcical to heartbreaking.
It would be easy to call “The Homesman” a feminist western. Yet, the label is a loose fit at best. Rather, the picture is a plainspoken, powerful picture that takes its social cues from the Old West. Mary Bee wants pretty much the same things most homesteaders want: a spouse, a family, a sense of belonging to a community made uncomfortable by those who don’t quite fit in.
In its way, the film evokes a disturbing scene in John Ford’s classic, “The Searchers.” John Wayne is on a long, pitiless search for his niece, Debbie, who was kidnapped by Indians years ago. He’s led to a room where the cavalry has gathered some former captives who’d be about Debbie’s age. They are unkept… and insane. Wayne’s undisguised revulsion is as unsettling as anything else in this most unsettling movie.
With two Oscars back home, Swank doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone. Yet, once again, you are struck by her commitment and originality. Her range may be small — or maybe odd is the better word — but no one is better at doing what she does. Mary Bee is a strikingly complete character, strong-minded and very much her own person.
Further, she’s a marvelous match for Jones’ peculiar brand of ornery ol’ coot. In many ways, his Briggs is as inexplicable (and as inarguably unbendable) as her Mary Bee. There’s a little jig he does — twice — that speaks to an inchoate wildness at his core. Something that can’t be soothed — much like something in Mary Bee.
There is tragedy here. And loss. And a hungry melancholy that won’t let go.
What rough beast slouches toward Iowa indeed?