No Country for Unmarried Women: The Homesman

11/05/2014 4:00 AM |

The Homesman
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones

The opening credits of Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman—a series of landscape shots (ample vistas, golden sunsets, purple skies) from DP Rodrigo Prieto—offer images that, though beautiful, hint at something unknown in their total emptiness. As in his previous widescreen western, the contemporary-set Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Jones imagines this wide-open environment as a threatening space characterized by psychological warfare, disturbing comedy, and savage violence.

Before these concerns materialize, however, The Homesman—set in 1850s Nebraska and adapted from Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel—centers on a virtuous character, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), whose worries are of the everyday variety: plowing her land, sweeping the floors, preparing a generous supper. At 31, though, her “uncommonly alone” lifestyle is starting to wear thin.

When she learns that three local women have gone mad, Cuddy—rightly sensing that the respective husbands aren’t up to the task—volunteers to transport them to Iowa for treatment. Cuddy receives a bolted wagon equipped for the cross-country journey, and the last ingredient of the road-movie-ish premise arrives when she stumbles upon a left-for-dead claim-jumper—George Briggs (Jones), his face stained from dynamite residue—and promises him $300 if he makes the trip with her.

The strength of Cuddy’s character (performed with great poise by Swank) and the implications of the women’s insanity—through short “memory hits” (Jones’s term), the movie portrays the toxic influence of men—initially imbue The Homesman with a bracing feminist agenda. However, a truly shocking, late-breaking event repositions the entire movie; whether it compromises or cruelly asserts the aforementioned feminism is, perhaps to Jones’s credit, difficult to tell.

What’s clearer is that the shift reaffirms the viciousness of Jones’s vision: there are more than enough tossed-aside corpses and graves here to justify a title along the lines of Three Burials. Cameos from the likes of Tim Blake Nelson (as a disgusting drifter) and James Spader (as the owner of a hotel that, in an astonishing sequence, reaches a fiery fate) only add to this sea of carnage. If it can’t be said that Jones has produced a cohesive work with The Homesman, it can’t be denied that the movie is stuffed with moments that are genuinely—often bafflingly—unexpected.

Opens November 14