Tommy Lee Jones can be proud of what he’s achieved, on both
sides of the camera, with The Homesman. It’s
a remarkable piece of work. Calling it a Western may be misleading. It does take
place on the Western plains in the 1800s, but it’s more of a character study—and
one of the characters happens to be the setting. To bring his austere vision to
life, Jones has surrounded himself with people of exceptional talent, including
cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, production designer Merideth Boswell, and costume
designer Lahly Poore. They make us feel as if we have stepped into a time
machine; every image, every detail, is vivid and tangible, from a sturdy,
unattractive horse-drawn wagon to a fancy hotel in the middle of nowhere.
His unerring eye has extended to casting, as well. Hilary
Swank makes an indelible impression as Mary Bee Cuddy, a forthright, capable,
independent farmer struggling to survive on her own terms in a harsh, often unfriendly
environment. Swank disappears into the character; whether she’s plowing a field
or speaking up in church, you believe her. She has volunteered to take three
broken women to a safe haven hundreds of miles away and realizes that she needs
a man to help her survive the journey. Jones adds another memorable character
to his own rogues’ gallery as the wily, selfish, seemingly amoral man who grudgingly
makes the trip, and ultimately gives in to his better nature after spending
time with Cuddy. He’s a contrary and unpredictable fellow, right to the end of
The supporting cast is equally well chosen; even actors with
just one or two scenes make them count. John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Miranda
Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter, William Fichtner, and an amusing James
Spader all add to the whole. Meryl Streep turns up near the end of the film,
and inhabits her genteel character so completely that after the first moment of
recognition, we forget that we’re watching a famous actress and become absorbed
in the scene.
This is as severe a portrait of life on the plains as we’ve
ever seen on film, especially in its depiction of women and how they suffered
out West. (At the Telluride Film Festival, Jones told me that he shot even more
graphic and upsetting scenes but cut them.) This is strong stuff, and it may not
appeal to a wide audience, but it’s an eye-opening look at supposedly familiar
territory. Jones shares screenplay credit with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley
Oliver, working from a novel by Glendon Swarthout.
Marco Beltrami adds the finishing touch with his evocative
score, which perfectly supports the film and incorporates 19th
century sounds and songs.
The Homesman won’t
be an easy sell, and may not appeal to a wide audience, but it’s filmmaking of
the highest order—and a movie that lingers in my memory.