The opening credits to The Homesman appear over the expanses of the Nebraska Territory. Then, into the empty frame comes a lone woman, navigating a mule-drawn plow. Soon after, there are three short disturbing scenes of other pioneer women, all engaged in acts of domestic horror.
Could this be a provocative exploration of the unique physical and psychic hardships faced by women on the frontier? A film to counter the romanticism of the West, with its rugged male archetypes? Alas, no. Tommy Lee Jones' film, adapted from Glendon Swarthout's novel, flirts with this idea, but over the course of its journey, this not-quite-a-Western takes another path.
Out on the prairie, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) manages her own homestead. She's 31, and apparently "too bossy and too plain" to marry. She volunteers to undertake a wagon trip of several weeks, transporting the three aforementioned "crazy" women east to Iowa.
After the harrowing but wholly believable scenes that depict the women's breakdowns, we meet a dodgy drifter named Briggs (Jones) via a Mack Sennett comedy: disgorged from an exploding house, wearing filthy underwear, his face creased with soot. It was here that I feared The Homesman would turn into "a movie featuring a cantankerous Tommy Lee Jones character," and I wasn't wrong. Through a bit of contrivance, Cuddy negotiates Briggs' help on the journey.
The Homesman often shifts in tone like this, from menacing, hopeful, dark, silly, heartwarming and terrifying, with little rhyme, while the plot skips from fresh to clichéd to head-scratching. (One late-film dramatic turn made little sense.) After their shocking introduction, the mad women are mute. A few flashbacks suggest their madness may lie in the privation of the frontier and their lack of agency, but we never hear their stories. They might as well be sad calico-covered rocks being shipped back east.
The journey depicted is more day-to-day hardship than drummed-up excitement, and here Jones does make good use of the landscape to elicit the misery masked by the spare beauty: the non-stop wind, rushing across the never-ending treeless prairie, crushed by too much sky. (Of course you'd go mad.)
The Homesman travels in the fascinating space between wild and tame, where rugged (even brutish) individualism was needed to break the frontier, while in its wake, order and domesticity were required to make life endurable for larger communities. A dynamic space, the film suggests, not conducive to women, with their emotional complexities, thwarted desires and prescribed roles — even when such women come as strong and independent as Cuddy. I'm not here to argue whether this characterization is true, but rather to bemoan the fact that The Homesman chose to leave its more interesting female characters behind in favor of another wagon-full of Tommy Lee Jones grumpily sorting things out.