Friday, December 19, 2014
When the character played by Tommy Lee Jones in “The Homesman,” who calls himself George Briggs but may not be the most trustworthy source, tells Mary Bee Cuddy, the plucky frontierswoman played by Hilary Swank, that she’s “as plain as an old tin pail,” you may want to stop the movie and file a complaint. As Jones is well aware, he’s no beauty-pageant contestant himself, and Briggs is a grubby, unkempt character with a disreputable past, who resembles a hunk of gristle chewed and then spat out by a stray dog. But Jones, as always, knows what he’s doing. In only his second feature as a director, the laconic 68-year-old star has made a wrenching, relentless and anti-heroic western that stands among the year’s most powerful American films. Not everyone will like “The Homesman,” but if you see it you won’t soon forget it.
In its own unshowy way, “The Homesman” is a profoundly compassionate, subversive and tragic story about the unacknowledged sacrifices made by women throughout history, about the tenuous bonds of community and mutual obligation that make human life possible and about the thin, wavering line that separates civilization from anarchy. Like so many great stories told before, it recounts a dangerous voyage: Mary Bee and Briggs, a pair of social outsiders, must transport three women across the trackless prairie of the Nebraska Territory to the Missouri River, Iowa and the relative order of the existing United States. (No date is specified, but it has to be the late 1850s.) Why do these women have to go? Because they’ve snapped. They’re chained inside a wagon, a trio of frontier wives driven insane by the hardship, disease and loneliness of life in an unforgiving, wind-swept wilderness.
I’m not naive enough to believe that a movie with this subject matter and this setting will be a big hit or a major player in the Oscar race. But it should be, and in a curious way “The Homesman” fits into our contemporary cultural debate about sex, gender and the status of women. George Briggs may not be much of a feminist, but I think Jones now gets to claim that title if he wants it. Plain as a tin pail Mary Bee may be, but Jones (and Briggs too) understands that she, and not her male companion, is the true hero of “The Homesman.” (It’s only a tiny spoiler to say that the title refers to her, more than to Briggs.) She can plow, shoot and ride as well as any man in the territory, while still clinging to feminine dreams of domesticity, family and prosperity. If her struggle comes against insurmountable odds and points toward an ambiguous conclusion, such is America.