A realist Western, even feral, The Homesman has no welcoming forts in Indian Country or John Wayne as an honorable officer set there with Union Cavalry of humorous Irish and courtly Southern persuasion, nor does it have Maureen O’Hara and other soldiers’ wives who run the place with a no nonsense mannerly toughness. In the Nebraska territories of The Homesman, townswomen dry up into hatchet-eyed gossips and the frontier women go mad, driven to it by brutish husbands, by the dirt and unrelieved hardship and especially by their vast loneliness.
The Homesman does have Mary Bee Cuddy, 31, an unmarried former schoolteacher with a face described by one coarse man as being as attractive as “a tin cup.” As played by Hilary Swank, Mrs. Cuddy is “as capable as any man”, forthright, tenacious, wounded, filled with longing, and also struggling to keep the same vast loneliness from destroying her. She lives “uncommonly alone.”
She keeps her sensitivity tightly wound, but one reads it in her anguished face upon meeting the madwomen, in one slashing moment when she reflects upon her horse, Dorothy, and in her love of music which she tries to reproduce by fingering the keyboard of a knitted scroll. Showing no trace of vanity and convincing us of her complete belief in her character, Ms. Swank gives a performance of great purity and simplicity. She should have been nominated for an Academy Award.
Miss Cuddy has agreed to transport three frontier women from the Territories to civilized Iowa where they might be cared for by the Methodist Church. Uncommunicative and mad, alternately silent and wailing, the women require at least one other person to keep them safe, see to their needs and complete the journey. She needs a man. With the exception of John Lithgow’s preacher and a blacksmith, the men are governed by lust, greed and impulse, and seem separated from essential mercies as if the backbreaking desolation in which they live has leached all charity from them and made them into mercenary creatures only.
Tommy Lee Jones as George Briggs begins this way — a claim jumper, army deserter, as alone as Miss Cuddy but without her awareness, an animal given more to cunning then to thinking. He becomes something more complex — an admirer of Miss Cuddy, a reluctant rescuer, and yet a man who will kill others without a second thought for showing bad manners, an atom bonded to nothing, but a little more of a human being by the time their journey is complete.
Almost all the movie was shot in New Mexico, a windswept emptiness, a beautiful, heartbreaking, desperate landscape. Looking at it, one understands how much love of place depends upon companionship and kindness. Without those elements, it all becomes a fearsome blankness, ground fit for the threshing of individual hearts and hopes.