The American frontier may have closed 130-odd years ago, but in the American mind — especially when it starts daydreaming about the olden days — it remains as open as ever. That's one reason why, decades after their alleged peak, good Westerns still mosey into theaters every now and then, delighting fans of wide-open spaces, improvised morality, and unpainted wooden outbuildings. The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones' second film as actor/co-writer/director, is an ornery yet ingratiating straggler in this vein. It's also a larger, funnier, and altogether sadder affair than his great 2005 debut The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada. There are as many subtle emotional tones at work in a given scene as there are subtle colors visible in its sunrises and sunsets.
Hilary Swank, whose hard, androgynous beauty distinguishes her from safer and more glamorous starlets, plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a pioneer woman from New York whose independence and willpower prevent her from forging the domestic partnership she craves. She remains single at age 31, and in spite of her hard-earned prosperity, nobody in town wants to marry her. Out of either kindness or frustration or some exalted sense of duty, Mary Bee agrees to drive three battered and broken frontier wives from the Nebraska territory where she lives back to Iowa, where they will be packed up and sent back east to recover.
Early in her journey, Mary Bee rescues George Briggs (Jones), a claim-jumping rascal whose personal honor and a $300 payday at the end of the line are the only things that keep him by her side during their brutal, six-week trek. So, off into the wilderness they ride.
The film's psychic and thematic itinerary is tough to predict. It doesn't go where you think it might, with the quiet battle between Mary Bee (a reluctantly independent woman who wants to be in a partnership) and Briggs (a reluctant partner who wants to be independent) the most obvious example.
There aren't many physical confrontations, and what few there are aren't fair.
The dialogue is rich, direct, and funky ("This is fine cheese, Bob. So why not marry?"). And cameos from reliable miniaturists like Tim Blake Nelson, Meryl Streep and James Spader hearken back to the glory years of character actors compact and skillful enough to spike a film with their own brand of grace or ugliness.
There are audible echoes of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian throughout, from the Indians attired in the clothing of settlers they've killed to the strange dance that closes the film, a spasm of drunken movement that ultimately defines Jones' Briggs as both a vagrant and a gatekeeper.
The Homesman has been praised elsewhere as a feminist Western, but it isn't, at least not in the long run. It's something more valuable — a picture of a lost world whose peculiarities still matter. The (mid-)West here is an environment with its own meager pleasures and its own invisible traps. The three crazy women in Mary Bee's wagon seem to indicate that the biggest enemy is not varmints but a crippling sense of isolation that forces people to stand naked in harsh and howling winds.