Deep Focus: The Homesman
Tommy Lee Jones, who reached a midcareer high in the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (and later directed McCarthy’s “novel in dramatic form,” The Sunset Limited, for HBO), has made a movie that declares the Nebraska Territory in the 1850s no country for women of any age. In The Homesman, Jones plays a claim-jumping saddle tramp and Hilary Swank a pious pioneer woman who team up on a risky, arduous trek across the Great Plains. With moments of excitement, revelation and stark humor scattered among harsh visual and emotional textures, it’s an erratic, idiosyncratic adventure, based on a groundbreaking historical novel by Glendon Swarthout (who wrote a half-dozen other novels previously turned into movies, including Where the Boys Are, They Came to Cordura, and The Shootist).
Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy has proven herself a more capable farmer, homemaker, and citizen than her single or married neighbors, male and female. Still, the only way she can woo a man is with a vision of wedlock as a solid business. Farmers think her bossy, and the drifter played by Jones—who goes by the moniker George Briggs—considers her blunt speech poisonous. They all deem her, in Briggs’s demeaning phrase, “plain as an old tin pail.” Her life alters after three nearby farmwomen go insane during a grueling, isolating winter. Cuddy volunteers to transport them across the Missouri River and into Hebron, Iowa, where church people have vowed to escort them to relatives back East or to an asylum. Cuddy declares she can ride, handle a wagon, shoot, cook, and care for the women better than any of their husbands. But when she seizes the reins of the mule team for a primitive “frame wagon”—it looks like a single padded cell without the padding—Cuddy knows she needs help. That’s when she stumbles into Briggs dangling from a rope after an aborted claim jump. (Vigilante farmers put the noose around his neck and sat him on his horse, hoping it would amble off and hang him.) She cuts the miscreant loose on condition that for a $300 fee, he’ll help her deliver the women. Briggs insists throughout that he’s doing it for the money. (His conditions include cartridges and whiskey.)
Boomers who sang “The Cowboy’s Lament” in grade school—“Oh bury me not on the lone prairie / Where coyotes howl and the wind blows free / In a narrow grave just six by three”—will get a charge from the way Jones and his cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, capture the piercing austerity of landscapes where the wind blows free and carries with it dirt, ice, snow, and sand. The movie’s fascination comes from the way Jones reclaims the countryside from picturesque nostalgia and makes crossing it a crucible for Cuddy, a strong woman who hides her desperation, and for Briggs, a frank, modest scalawag who shrewdly works around his limitations. Individual episodes cut to the bone, especially a tense faceoff with a string of Indians sporting U.S. Cavalry garb and paraphernalia, and an eerie sequence starting when Cuddy reburies the remains of a girl whose grave has been scavenged by Indians and wolves.
But the screenplay Jones has written with Wesley A. Oliver and Kieran Fitzgerald never gets to the bottom of these characters. In Swarthout’s novel, Cuddy realizes that she courts nervous collapse long before she and Briggs hit the trail. In an inspired passage, Cuddy finds herself thinking of Genesis: “And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.” Swarthout writes: “What had happened to her lately she thought of as going void, absolutely void. In her was a great, dark deep.” The country’s loneliness and barrenness spread into her soul and harden there like crystallizing ice. Knowing this from the outset heightens a reader’s awareness of Cuddy’s subtle shifts in mood, her ultra-protectiveness toward afflicted women, and her self-doubt when she realizes that Briggs is simply better at managing their perilous journey. The movie offers a different, more contained experience. You marvel at Cuddy’s resilience and bravery, so you cringe at her compulsion to beg even an old cuss like Briggs to marry her. Swank is superb at taking a smart, practical woman to her limits. Given this cramped, uneven adaptation, it’s impossible for Swank to suggest how close Cuddy comes to an emotional abyss. A climactic, movie-changing event brings the audience up short; as shot and cut, it’s not worthy of Cuddy’s anguished would-be odyssey. The script undercuts Briggs, too, by deleting the character’s perceptive analysis of how a take-charge masculine presence could unhinge a woman as proud and confident as Cuddy.
It’s a tribute to Jones as a director of actors—himself included—that Briggs believably grows on Cuddy while winning over viewers, too. In mainstream hits like The Fugitive and Men In Black, Jones has such a distinctive persona, treading the line where Old School meets ornery, that it’s easy to underrate his versatility. As Briggs he brings surprising range to a man prone to shedding commitments and running away, whether from domestic ties or the Dragoons (Company C, First U.S. Fort Kearney). Jones embodies the comic pathos of a small-scale rogue, and perfectly calibrates just how much decency an audience should read into his baleful manner. Few actors are so adept at conveying the mental energy that goes into physical exertion, especially in life-or-death crises. And few actors-turned-directors treat their co-stars so cannily and generously. It’s wonderful to see Jones cede the screen to sardonic masters like Tim Blake Nelson as a seedy, menacing mule driver, and James Spader as a windbag speculator selling bogus shares in a “paper town” (empty acreage marked off into streets and fronted by a fancy yet flimsy hotel). Even Meryl Streep shows up, mercifully restrained as a genteel, unflappable pastor’s wife.
Unfortunately, these one-scene actors fare better than a trio that’s rarely out of sight. Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter, as the insane women, are reduced to playing tragic ciphers. Jones’s co-writer Oliver contends that in the novel, “Swarthout sometimes shows results without describing the steps it took to get there. So we had to imagine background moments.” That’s simply not true. The book gives each woman a full family history, while the movie renders their breakdowns with thumbnail sketches of terror and catastrophe. One loses three children to diphtheria, another kills her own newborn, and in a Gothic cinematic invention, a husband forces himself on the third while she lies in bed with her own mother. (The parent’s death triggers the woman’s breakdown.) The moviemakers perversely accentuate the negative in an already traumatic subject. They erase Swarthout’s fourth lunatic, who enjoyed a loving household and cracked only after killing a wolf pack that invaded her home over the course of two lonely, frigid nights—a sequence that might have been heroic as well as harrowing. I chalked up the existential bleakness of The Sunset Limited and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada to Jones’s peculiar appetite for severe, oracular material. What’s worrisome in The Homesman is that he takes distressing twists, like Briggs’s revenge on the real-estate man, and makes them more brutal than they have to be.
Visually, this film is stunning, and not just on the plains: in masterly swift strokes, Jones depicts the “paper town’ as an alien intrusion on real life. Still, I vastly prefer Jones’s sunny, exuberant first movie, Good Old Boys, a rambunctious salute to a free-spirited Texas cowboy (played by Jones) who helps his farmer brother and his family secure their land before striking out for Mexico with a drifting buddy (Sam Shepard). Based on a first-rate comic Western by Elmer Kelton, it boasts elating performers (including Sissy Spacek, Frances McDormand, and Matt Damon) and an atmosphere that wafts off the screen. You believe these men and women are working through their lives when the cameras aren’t running.
By the time The Homesman reaches Iowa, its characters no longer add up. The final half-hour rambles between ambiguous sentiments and savage ironies. With Jones’s multiple talents, and a deeper, sharper adaptation, he could have made a great Midwestern.