Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman stands out as a strange and eccentric western that merits viewing on the biggest screen possible. Defiantly progressive in theme and beautifully classical in style, the film functions as a striking portrait of female fortitude constantly being pressured and limited by male indecisiveness. Set in a harsh prairie landscape littered with obstacles, it's a darkly comic and poignant road film that traverses through the muck and mire of the Old West.
Hilary Swank stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a single woman of means living alone in the Nebraska Territories of 1817. She plows the dirt fields, tends to the horses and manages the household, all while trying to retain her femininity.
"You're as good a man as any man hereabouts," a grimy wagon master tells her early on. But the respect of men doesn't equate to their affection or attraction; doing the work of both genders has made Mary Bee socially inadequate in the eyes of the townsfolk.
When three different women living in the territory all go insane for various reasons (incessant rape, diphtheria outbreak, extreme drought), Mary Bee volunteers to transport them east across the Missouri River into Iowa, where each will receive psychological treatment. After no men in the community offer to be her second, she enlists the help of a louse named George Briggs (Jones) who's seconds away from a hangman's noose. Together, the two set off through the dangerous region, battling both each other and the human vultures nipping at their heels.
Different graves and headstones mark their trajectory, standing as physical and thematic reminders of people's failure to survive such a harsh world. The reality and poetry of death stand as direct opposites, with Jones favoring the former during The Homesman's most relevant scenes. Mary Bee struggles to reconcile the finality of it all, working tirelessly to see the greater good in her own efforts and life path. George, on the other hand, is an isolationist, a man who only looks out for his best interests. Despite having polar-opposite personalities, the two characters make "a good team," as Mary Bee puts it.
But her vision of George is a product of feeling "uncommonly alone" in life. The Homesman never sentimentalizes Mary Bee's role as a strong woman trying to survive in a society that frowns upon such dynamism by conforming. Instead, we are privy to many of her humiliations, both social and sexual, and the ripple effect they have on the narrative as a whole. George's denial of his own culpability in Mary's psychological descent defines the film's outlier of a final act, which borders on tragic in its thematic implications.
Not just a film of substantial subtext, The Homesman harks back to a measured and lush vision of the West no longer in favor by Hollywood. Rodrigo Prieto's haunting cinematography compels one to slow the eye and contemplate every angle of the frame, as if sitting on a front porch enjoying the colors of a never-ending horizon. Marco Beltrami's simple but intoxicating score manages to give the human drama onscreen a deep layer of melancholy.
Residing at the center of it all is Swank's Cuddy, a vulnerable yet steadfast woman who can't always hide from her internal strife. Nevertheless, the impact she has on George in the film's final moments is a testament to her success as a human being. It's not her fault that men seem to forget life's greatest lessons the second that situations change. The Homesman—which opens Friday, Nov. 28, at La Jolla Village Cinemas—grapples with this level of disappointment and how it inspires some people to stick their heads in the sand and forces others to disappear from this world for good. For this and many other reasons, it's one of the year's most daring genre films.