If you weren't really paying attention, you could sit through Tommy Lee Jones's engrossing drama secure in the assumption that the title refers to the character played by the director. Like a bizarre number of contemporary westerns, The Homesman yearns to be "elegiac", and George Briggs, given scruffy, ursine menace by Jones, is the very embodiment of the fading frontier spirit.
We first encounter Briggs whimpering pathetically with a noose around his imperilled neck. He doesn’t seem very comfortable, but he does look to be in his natural habitat. Later encounters with a weird encroachment from the newly civilised East (a swish hotel run by convincingly Irish James Spader) fill him with something approaching full cognitive meltdown. The implications could hardly be clearer if a Union Pacific locomotive eventually annihilated the unfortunate drifter. (It doesn’t.)
Yet Briggs is not the Homesman. That title surely affixes itself to stubborn (is the word “ornery”?) pioneer Mary Bee Cuddy. Played by Hilary Swank with a combination of desperation and determination, Mary Bee carries a great deal of symbolic weight on her shoulders.
Based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout – who also wrote The Shootist – The Homesman can be plausibly identified as a feminist western. Mind you, doing so leads us into tricky areas.
Mary Bee is the strongest and most responsible person in the district, but, for all her resilience, she still seems unfulfilled without the love of a good man. A significant plot development about three quarters of the way through has caused some progressive critics – hitherto onside with the sexual politics – to throw hands in the air and head for the exit. There are all kinds of grit to be savoured here.
The film reaches its fulcrum when the local preacher (reliably strong John Lithgow) is asked to deal with a disturbing outbreak. Three women, succumbing to the awful pressures of frontier life, have lost their minds (there’s no point trying to use more sensitive contemporary terms in this context) and need to be transported back east across the Missouri River. Mary Bee finds herself saddled with the task of accompanying them. At first she seems confident. However, after rescuing Briggs (Jones), a claim jumper, from lynching, she decides to press him into acting as her guide and bodyguard. They pack the women into a rickety wooden cart and set forth.
We've seen this relationship before. The African Queen is not the only film to saddle a pious, slightly humourless woman with a charismatic, drunken old reprobate. The controls have, however, been somewhat tweaked in this instance.
Played with great sympathy by Swank, Mary Bee is revealed to be hiding a mess of sublimated complexes. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the plains may also have taken a toll on her psyche.
Beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto, The Homesman – as westerns of the plains should – manages the jarring shift from wide-open space to niggling, intimate drama with great facility. Jones and Swank bounce off one another brilliantly. The sharp contrasts between western frontier and eastern civilisation nicely point towards the ending of a brief romantic era.
There remain, however, niggling doubts about this singular, blackly funny film. Here we have a story about the female experience in the west that doesn’t quite allow its heroine to assert herself and escape patriarchal influence. The depiction of the three travellers as lunatics and Mary Bee’s own eventual emotional sagging stress victimhood without allowing much possibility for female empowerment.
Maybe that's the point of The Homesman. Maybe it's an even more depressing fable than it thinks itself to be. Maybe we're just a bunch of lily-livered, greenhorns with too much book-learnin'.
A cracking film for all that.