Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel The Homesman was in my view his best Western work. It deserved a high-quality film treatment (in fact all four of Swarthout’s Western stories got very good movie versions) and in many ways Tommy Lee Jones was the ideal person to do that. Mr. Jones was one of the producers, a co-writer and the director (it was his fourth film as director). Oh, and he also starred in it. I think we can say he was a prime mover of the movie.
A fine American novel
Jones is a thoughtful man and a reader as well as being a, by now, old hand at the Western. In the making-of documentary on the DVD he discusses whether the picture belongs to the genre of Western, saying he doesn’t really know what a Western is or indeed the meaning of genre. It is true that while Jones starred in undoubted Westerns such as Lonesome Dove or The Missing, he was also prime mover in films which occupied a less sure Western ground such as No Country for Old Men or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald says, “The Homesman is not a Western. It’s a mid-Western.” Mr. Jones, when interviewed in Cannes (the picture was nominated for the Palme d’Or), defined it as “a movie about American history.”
Tommy Lee Jones as Briggs
Well, for what little it’s worth, I think it’s a Western. Westerns don’t all have to be about gunslingers and stage robbers. They can also be about frontier life. An essential ingredient of the Western, indeed, was often the battling with the terrain and this film has that in spades. And it also strongly features the classic Western notion that a man (and in this case also a woman)’s gotta do what … etc. We are in Nebraska Territory in the 1850s. There are wagons and horses and Indians and shooting and big hats. It’s a Western alright.
As is perhaps unsurprising about a 2014 movie, this one concentrates on the plight of women at that time, and indeed a woman is essentially the hero (we tend not say heroine these days), Jones’s character notwithstanding. This concentration on the woman was more admirable in 1988, when the novel came out, but even by then feminism had made great strides and academic attention was being turned to shining a light on the hitherto obscured part that women played in the history of the West. But I do not mean to belittle the movie or book because of that; au contraire.
The film reunited many of those involved in Three Burials. It has the same director/star; Luc Besson and Europacorp were again producers; Marco Beltrami did the music for both; and many of the crew were the same too. That and the arid landscape give The Homesman and Three Burials just a little of the same vibe, though the setting and story are much different.
The landscape (as so often in Westerns) is a key element, almost a character. Shot in north-east New Mexico (God’s own land), it represents 1860s Nebraska with glowing, if daunting landscapes. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is one of the strongest points of the movie and enough time and silence is allowed for us appreciate the vistas too. As well as the wide, empty plains and winter wildness there are also stunning set pieces such as the hotel in flames at night. It is Mr. Prieto’s only Western (he was not used on Three Burials) but I hope it will not be the last.
Full marks also to all the costumes, props and set design people because the look of the thing shouts out authenticity. I’m not sure who these folk are because their names are lost among the absurdly-long list of credits. Movies these days have ten-minute credits that insist on telling you who supplied hamburgers to the driver of the assistant to Mr. Jones’s hairdresser.
The acting is top notch. Jones himself is reliably superb in Western movies and is especially good as tough but ornery type with more grit than Rooster Cogburn. He is no spring or prairie chicken these days (in fact he’s even older than I am) and he shows it in his walk, but who cares? Rooster himself was no boy. Jones plays the reprobate Briggs (or so he calls himself for the moment) as a picaresque character certainly, and an outwardly coarse and crusty one, with all the laconic style appropriate to Western heroes, but the book had him develop as a character, softened by the good woman who accompanied him and with decency and sensitivity gradually emerging (or perhaps an original but lost decency re-emerging), and Jones does this very well in the movie. It’s a fine performance.
Hilary Swank very good indeed
And Hilary Swank as the noble but essentially tragic Mary Bee Cuddy is outstanding too. I didn’t know Ms. Swank, though she is an Oscar winner (for Boys Don’t Cry) and had appeared in the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Next Karate Kid. These aren’t my kinda movies, I’m afraid. But she’s superb in The Homesman. It was a brave choice in some ways because she is supposed to be an increasingly desperate spinster, with “a viper in her mouth” and “plain as a tin pail.” Not every actress would have jumped at that role. But Cuddy (as Briggs calls her) is of course also a strong, independent woman who acts nobly out of compassion and in fact it’s a great part to play. And Hilary’s a Nebraskan too.
There are similarities with The Missing in that the central theme is a strong frontier woman teaming up with a disreputable but skilled and tough frontiersman on a mission to save. You see something of Samuel Jones in George Briggs.
Supporting these two principals we have Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter as the women driven out of their minds by the physical and mental strain of frontier life, who are taken back East in a frame wagon by the homesman (and homeswoman). These actors (there are three in the film, not four) had a hard job as they had to play madwomen throughout but they did it very well, and they talk articulately about it in the making-of.
Good old Barry Corbin is the wagonwright
Good old Barry Corbin appears as the wagonwright (always a pleasure to see him) and notably good too were John Lithgow as the Reverend Mr. Dowd and James Spader (Red from The Blacklist) as the conman in spats, Aloysius Duffy. They got Meryl Streep to play Altha Carter, the wife of the (unseen) Methodist minister, and she does a predictably good job in her small part. In fact I don’t think there was an unconvincing actor there.
They got Meryl Streep, no less
The film does leave some things out from the book, and it also adds little touches (I loved the thimble) but it is perfectly entitled to do so, and importantly, it remains entirely true to the spirit of the novel.
In the same way that the novel is a must-read, this movie is a must-see. Trust me.