I was not planning on writing a review for The Homesman but I can't stop thinking about it. Writers and reviewers (I'm both) get to see many movies in this town and half are invites with no requisite payback. Sometimes the ones that do require reviews don't inspire, sometimes the ones that don't will stay with you, perhaps forever.
The Homesman is produced, directed by and stars Tommy Lee Jones who brings us a visually beautiful and brutally honest visit to the mid-west of the 1850s. The desolate and unforgiving Nebraska territory is the stage and the characters are the disarmingly normal settlers whose shoulders we stand on. They are the forgotten, unspectacular, hard working pioneers who broke sweat and bone to shape our world. Civilization seems fragile enough today and this film reminds us just how fragile putting one together really was.
Sometimes the isolation or bad company at the edge of America was too much to bear and wound up breaking the minds of those breaking first ground instead. So is the case here with three pioneer women, wives or mothers, whose minds have caved in from difficulty, despair or mistreatment. They can no longer care for themselves or others and that's dangerous in a world where one wrong step on a good day could spell disaster. There was a name for the man you'd hire to take immigrant women back east and home to their families. A Homesman. Usually a man, the role here falls to Mary Bee Cutty, a pious hard working woman played with heartfelt compassion by Hillary Swank. The novel by Glendon Swarthout, is adapted by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver. The story pits Jones, a claim jumper at the end of his rope, and Swank, well meaning beyond life's expectations, together as the most unlikely pair to make this dangerous long journey back together.
There are no spoilers here as you'll get no more of the plot from me. You don't need it. The spacious profound power of the old west was the majestic emptiness and silence. Jones captures that for us, with Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto, a world where nature's imprint dwarfs our own and you could perish if you stray too far from the fire and lose your way. The inability to find a mark left by man was part of this world's beauty and treachery. We begin to realize that part of our yearning to fill these spaces with ourselves was merely to make them feel safe. A landscape where a single hand-built house was the only lifeboat for miles in an unfriendly silent ocean.
Several indelible appearances from John Lithgow, James Spader and Meryl Streep are unexpected colors on a vivid canvas where we discover, through careful camera work and time with Jones and Swank, that what made the west bearable wasn't its treasures or hardships, but the humanity we brought to it. Swank disarmingly brings hope. Others unexpectedly walk hand and in hand with cruelty.
Jones lets you know from the start that this isn't a Hollywood story, but one that is intended to feel real. And in reality there were no footnotes in history for these characters. Most are not remembered. Their only take away from life was their time together and how they treated one another. Perhaps the film's power is the unspoken reminder that we are going to take away exactly the same thing when it's our turn to leave the stage.
The Homesman is in theaters now.