“The Homesman” isn’t a glamorized western. Writer/director Tommy Lee Jones gives us an authentic look at what life on the western frontier was like, and a feminist critique of the genre/time. It’s a tough movie for most people to sit through and swallow, but it’s guaranteed to give you something to chew on after the closing credits.
Hillary Swank is Mary Bee Cuddy, a 31 year old, principled, hardworking single woman. Whatever happened up until this point in her life, it’s obvious that her work ethic has brought her the “American Dream of the time” minus a husband and kids. In the opening scenes of the film, Bob Giffen (Evan Jones), the local single man likely to be her suitor, gives her the adjectives of “plain and bossy” as the reason he won’t marry her. She’s obviously far from plain, amassing her own lot and cattle on the edge of the unknown of U.S. territory. She’s what you may call an independent woman today, but she’s referred to as an “uncommon” woman in the film.
When three women in their small town take a mental turn for the worst, no man has the guts to make the journey back east to take the women to a place where they can receive care. Mary Bee does. She secures the help of George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) after saving him from death by hanging. George is an unkempt, self-centered drifter; he’s everything Mary Bee is not. While Mary Bee is on a mission to ensure the safety of the three women, George is on a mission to earn $300 for assisting with the “cuckoo clocks”.
Each woman being transported has their own issues wrapped in feminine disenfranchisements of the time. Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter), a Norwegian woman who has been repeatedly raped by her husband in an effort to give him a son, howls and bites at anyone who comes near her. Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), only 19 years old, doesn’t move much or speak. She just holds on to a rag doll that subs for the three children she lost to diphtheria. Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto), drowned her own baby in an outhouse.
As the group makes the journey east, it’s clear that nature itself is not going to make it an easy ride. Winter is brutal, nights are cold, food is scarce, and bridges haven’t been built to walk over streams or rivers. The harsh reality of survival during that time is made clear as each day passes in the film.
Jones is able to put a magnifying glass on the time and deconstruct the role that women and men played throughout “The Homesman”. While he pushes for feminist context, he trips over it by missing wonderful opportunities for female empowerment. As the duo gets closer to their destination, Mary Bee, despite all of her wonderful qualities and material possessions, feels incomplete as a woman without a husband and makes choices that shatter her weight in the film. All of the women in the film have an identity that is closely associated to a man or lack their of.
“The Homesman” shows us that the frontier was a man’s world. A strong moral compass could get you killed, and self-interest would help you thrive during that era. Jones’ statement on women during the time is made clear throughout the movie, but fell short of something remarkable. Regardless, the film is memorable, and will make you grateful you only had to watch a movie about the frontier rather than live it out.