With The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones’s torch-carrying efforts on behalf of the tried-and-tested beauty of the American West continue to be moving. Taking into account his feature appearance as a practical spokesperson for old western values in the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, his reverent direction in the Sam Peckinpah throwback The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), and his general tendency to appear in Hollywood productions that will bestow upon him the privilege of wearing a cowboy hat (or at the very least some period clothing, as in Lincoln, Emperor and A Prairie Home Companion), Jones seems our preeminent fetishist of the 19th-century frontier and its moral codes at a time when westerns are mostly out of vogue. That Three Burials, up until now his last theatrical effort behind the camera, was released nine years ago lends credence to the unfashionable nature of the man’s sensibility.
To observe the credit sequence of Jones’s latest directorial effort, however, is to feel the full weight of his convictions. Countless westerns have begun with unpopulated landscape shots set to fawning orchestral music, but there’s something especially momentous being implied in the lengths of Jones’s images (lensed attractively by Rodrigo Prieto), their sturdiness, and their stitching via dissolves: This is not just a location in which to set a film, but The Mythic West in all its rough beauty and persistent indifference to human intervention. Jones’s relationship to this landscape is not a romantic one; if anything, given the palpable physical toll it takes on his characters, he recognizes the land as an unrealistic place for human lives to flourish. And yet, in The Homesman, even more than the wearying Three Burials, Jones sees the west as a place where psychological integrity is best tested and illuminated.
Like Three Burials, The Homesman fixates on the transportation of human cargo across uncivilized territory by two mismatched characters. In the previous film, the shipment was a corpse; here, they’re basically live corpses: three senile women from a nowhere settlement in Nebraska whose paths to insanity provide some of the film’s key mysteries. Faced with the timidity of the women’s husbands, dignified single lady Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) agrees to escort the loonies by carriage to an asylum across the Missouri River in Iowa, a leap of faith to which the members of the town balk in disbelief. Nonetheless, no one’s brave enough to talk her out of it, so the trip begins according to plan, albeit with one hitch: On her way out, Cuddy comes across a bedraggled supplanter left to hang and agrees to save him in return for aid on the expedition. His name is George Briggs (Jones himself), and though Cuddy’s dismayed by his vulgarity when she shares with him the details of the job, one gets the sense that she’s sizing him up for more than just his facility as a coworker. One telling shot features Swank observing her newly acquired colleague washing the soot from his face through the window of her spartan cabin, a conflicted gaze that suggests a lonely woman auditioning her future mate.
Inaugurated by the ominous contrapuntal overlay of two daughters’ sweet parting melody for their sick mother and the deathly moan of another of the wives, the excursion gradually grows into the portent implied from its inception. In its judicious use of long dissolves and its dwarfing of figures across the landscape, The Homesman starts to suggest the 2:35:1, snow-swept version of Meek’s Cutoff’s hallucinogenic cross-country sweep, treating the landscape as a directionless abyss littered with peculiar encounters. Cuddy and Briggs must contend with a horny drifter (played robustly by Tim Blake Nelson) and, naturally, a gang of Indians. Between these confrontations, Jones details the daily toil of the trip: creakily pressing on with exhausted horses; starting fires to ward off the dying light; and slaving over near-comatose passengers, one of whom keeps damning her lead chaperone to hell. In a deadpan master shot that summarizes the tone of the journey, three mad women crouch over the earth defiling what Jones so admiringly photographed in the prologue. (Really, that’s the essence of this spurtive director’s style: a classically durable composition thrown off balance by some unnerving grotesquery.)
At one point, Cuddy, a devout Christian, kneels to pray to the sky as dusty wind whips through her stringy hair. Here, Jones mimics the Lord’s-perspective shot of Erland Josephson praying in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice — but there’s no divine intervention in this case, only the company of one another. On this score, Briggs is dead weight, a cantankerous cynic with only a $300 reward on his mind. When Cuddy strays from the group to tidy up the sloppily dug grave of — surprise, surprise — a neglected female, Briggs makes no attempt to find her or assist in her return. It is this enervating incident that proves the catalyst for Cuddy’s definitive act of desperation, which yields an alarming plot development and a sudden heightening of the stakes for Briggs. Nonetheless, it’s a quiet moment just before this twist that illuminates part of what Jones is after with The Homesman: Cuddy singing to herself away from the group, suddenly drained of her passion as she stares vacantly into the distance. Through this behavior, one can see the seed of the trauma inflicting the disoriented wives: a psychic numbness induced by continued exposure to male negligence.
Left without his riding companion, Briggs redirects his unacknowledged guilt toward unfiltered vengeance against the unknown — in this case, the exclusionary capitalistic values of the north.
Alas, Jones still leaves open the possibility of male heroism. The film’s final act begins with a suspension of disbelief that may turn off viewers wary of such things, but it’s a progression that ultimately expands Jones’s engagement with, and subversion of, western-genre tropes, even while seemingly complicating a strict feminist reading. Left without his riding companion, Briggs redirects his unacknowledged guilt toward unfiltered vengeance against the unknown — in this case, the exclusionary capitalistic values of the north. Bizarre as this psychological deflection may be, it results in the film’s most indelible sequence: a bed-and-breakfast inferno that concludes with Jones riding confidently into the distance with a stolen swine attached to his saddle, a much-needed feast just around the corner.
Briggs completes the mission with his delivery intact, but can he be seen as a hero? The Homesman concludes with a series of scenes that undermine the character’s last-ditch efforts at redeeming his prior carelessness. All alone in a pampered Iowa town, Briggs stumbles with his winnings to a gambling parlor, a decision that suggests a return to old habits. The film’s final shot, an Edwin Porter reverberation siphoned of its immediacy, shows Jones firing a gun in the direction of the camera while floating off on a raft of hooligans ever further into the distance. Sinking in the water beside the raft is Cuddy’s wooden grave — a symbol of her drift out of history, or the drift of women away from the narrative of the American frontier.
The Homesman has already been looked upon skeptically for what many see as its cowardly backtracking from the feminist tract implied by much of its running time. But, in addition to introducing a humanistic sense of dimensionality to Briggs’s otherwise monotonously sour character, Jones’s narrative gambit hints at the ways in which history has often been composed of half-hearted attempts at change that gradually wither back to stagnancy. Left to the beaming kindness of Meryl Streep (glibly cast as the asylum nurse/charity incarnate), the three mad women will at the very least live out their days under proficient care — but there’s a sense in which they, like Cuddy, have been neatly filed away into obsolescence. Meanwhile, men like Briggs, Tim Blake Nelson’s nomad, and, say, Thor Svendsen (David Dencik) — the sexually abusive husband of the most far-gone of the wives — still wander the west in search of cheap thrills by the end of The Homesman. They’ll eventually fade into the vast, ennobling landscape like Cuddy, but not without scorching some of it in the process.