While age is nothing but a numerical label, one has to admire Tommy Lee Jones for actively seeking out passion projects this far into his career. After a storied legacy that includes an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and even an Emmy, Jones could simply sit back and let the offers roll in, but that’s not how this hard-working Hollywood maverick rolls.
The Homesman is only Jones’ second directorial feature, yet it’s a confident period piece harnessed through years of experience both on and behind the all-seeing camera lens. It’s a simple story about how cruel Western territories could be back in the gun-slinging-cowboy days, playing directly into Jones’ gruff and straight-shooting nature, but The Homesman also reveals a societal culture that’s incredibly foreign to today’s equal-opportunity world. Heavy on drama and light on shoot-outs, Jones certainly has an intriguing second effort on his hands, one that finds success but will likely come up short this awards season.
Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a single farm owner who has made quite a living tending to her own crops and needs. While being unmarried at 30 in today’s world doesn’t sound all-that uncommon, for Mary Bee’s time, society couldn’t be more confused by the situation. This weighs on Mary Bee, but it’ll have to wait a few more months because after a series of events, the pioneer woman steps up to escort three insane women from her Nebraska colony to Iowa. Before starting her travels, she comes across a claim-jumper (Tommy Lee Jones) waiting to be hung, and she releases him on the condition he accompany her to Iowa. Setting out into nothingness, Mary Bee and her new friend “George” have only each other to rely on, even if George is only in it for a reward that awaits in Iowa.
Tommy Lee Jones walks away from The Homesman leaving a lasting impressing, personifying a mysterious claim jumper whose lust for life is fueled by money and whiskey. He’s the charming good-old-boy type who will get up and start doing a military jig just for the hell of it, honest with his words and blunt with his feelings – something Jones’ unflinching emotional grasp plays wonderfully into. He’s like the kooky-town-drunk – a lesser version of Stinky Pete from the Toy Story franchise if you will – but Jones manages to strike both laughs and reflective development through a stoic, deadpan nature. Leonard commits some pretty despicable acts, challenging our positive connection with a character who could have been lifted right from a Coen brothers script. He is lovably gruff and succinctly serious, hitting notes akin to Jeff Bridges’ turn in True Grit – minus the legal backing.
Swank also brings an energy we haven’t seen for a short spell, as the Nebraska native gets to inhabit her home territory during a MUCH different era in time. Being a single woman at her age was almost unheard of, which makes for some interesting propositions and conundrums from a “desperate,” self-made female who’s almost looked down upon for not shacking up and bearing child. In a time of gender equality and equal opportunities, Swank’s performance is a drastic comparison to societal thinking, reverting back to a primal nature that once was. The actress balances a strong outer appearance with a lonely, unhappy inner core, questioning if her focused “sanity” isn’t nothing but a safe facade for her own unique blend of lost consciousness.
As for the remaining cast members, this collection of varied pioneer folk help Jones paint a picture of frontier life that makes us appreciate the trials and tribulations of modern-day life. Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter play the mental cases who unravel at the hands of harsh elemental forces or worse, proving the hardships of being a woman tied to nothing but daily chores. Their counterparts – David Dencik, William Fichtner and Jesse Plemons – are used in the same manner but for different reasons, emphasizing desolate country lives versus simple city living. Being a pioneer was a bleak, droll life, which Jones captures through these massive focal shots that ensure characters are framed against backdrops on dirt, dust, and nothingness. Jones paints sprawling Western landscapes much like many films have before, but they’re still equally as breathtaking each and every time – a reminder of what used to be.
Rounding this cast of wandering characters are John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld and Meryl Streep, all established players who bring a level of gravity to their minor supporting parts. Lithgow plays a reverend version of himself, and Spader delights as a sly businessman, but it’s Nelson who disappears under the costume of a traveling deviant. No matter the role, Nelson transforms completely like a Hollywood chameleon, in this case abiding only by the way of the West to provide a genuine glimpse into a lawless citizen’s life. The Homesman is built slowly upon each character encountered along Mary and Leonard’s journey, moreso than through locations or plotting. Each personality unlocks a new section of Western lifestyles, slowly building a full glimpse of the pioneering founders who sacrificed everything for what can be described as one of the earliest American dreams.
The Homesman is a curious mixture of bleakness and independence, making true survivors out of the heroes of Jones’ film. While moving West represented absolute freedom and possible success, its solitude could be the deadliest killer America has ever seen. Think about how people today can’t go two seconds without checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other globally connective program – and now imagine those people sitting in a farmhouse for months doing nothing but cooking, cleaning, and tending to crops/animals. Mary Bee’s journey provides an interesting focal point, but there’s more talent in Jones’ exploration of Western culture as a whole in this dark exposition about family, society, and more importantly, a life more ordinary.