Tragedy and absurdity live perilously together in Tommy Lee Jones’ magnificent The Homesman, a more mainstream, if fitting, follow-up to his offbeat directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiadas Estrada. Take, for instance, the scene in which his character, George Briggs, and Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy must force three women with severe mental illnesses to pee before their stagecoach sets off for another day of rugged, ragged Midwestern travel circa 1850.
Each of them grabs a damaged woman like a rag doll, propping them up in positions conducive to urination. Meanwhile, the third, and possibly most abused, woman of them all lies in front of a wagon wheel, her hands roped together for her own safety, and bangs her head against it rhythmically. The scene would be a farce if it weren’t so painfully sad—though sometimes, perhaps, life is both of those things.
Like The Three Burials, The Homesman is a road movie with a cause. Mary Bee, a hard-bitten spinster who runs a Nebraska homestead, agrees to a job the cowardly men in her community won’t accept: to travel to Iowa, five or six weeks by wagon, to deliver their mentally unstable wives to a treatment center. Between the bloodthirsty Native Americans and the harsh winter, it’ll be a dangerous journey, she’s told.
As fate has it, Mary soon finds a riding companion who has been left for dead: Jones’ George Briggs, a claim-jumping rapscallion we first encounter soot-faced and scratching his ass, as he’s flare-bombed out of the home he’s squatted in. Mary Bee takes him in, taking advantage of his labor and domesticating him over the lengthy trip, whose surprises I won’t spoil.
In addition to directing and starring, the indefatigable Jones also co-wrote the screenplay from a largely forgotten book by Glendon Swarthout, a perceptive novelist better known for Where the Boys Are and The Shootist. The novel may not be a brilliant gem—I haven’t read it—but it has certainly inspired greatness in its translator. The movie is elegiac in the way so many great Westerns are, a paean to frontier life that opens with mournful violin music coloring an endless desert expanse—the majesty of the western sprawl. But the movie’s stance on life isn’t one of hollow romance for the untamed country: Its emotional canvas is unsentimental and free of manipulation, its violence swift and matter-of-fact, its plot twists both devastating and predestined.
While Jones is customarily brilliant in front of the camera—even if his weathered-rebel persona is a familiar one—his skill and sensitivity as a director are the real breakthrough here. The brief scenes, sometimes in flashback, of the painful ordeals that led to the three women’s insanity are filmed like unsettling fever dreams—horror-film scares bursting at the movie’s western seams. Jones never loses sight of the fact that these women could have been any of us back then, before modern medicine and PTSD diagnoses, where the only way to deal with rapes and dead babies is to shut oneself off from a world unspeakable enough to deliver them.
But Mary Bee is just as at risk for becoming these women. She yearns for the comfort and love of a man, spending her leisure time pantomiming music on a cloth likeness of a keyboard. No less than two men in the film call her bossy, plain and unweddable. As for George, there’s a reason he, too, has resorted to taking another man’s land and nearly accepting death because of it. He doesn’t have much to live for, either.
You soon recognize that everybody in this film is fundamentally alone, even when they’re together. And it’s this observation in The Homesman—beyond the laughs, the poignancy and the jolts—that sticks with you the most, washing its beautiful landscapes in a kind of existential malaise that seems to be saying this: Most people in this tumultuous period of history weren’t John Wayne or Barbara Stanwyck or Clint Eastwood. They were isolated souls drifting through life, each day as uncertain as the next.
“The Homesman” opens today at Cinemark Palace 20 and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, Carmike Parisian 20 in West Palm Beach, the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Aventura, Regal South Beach and Paragon Grove in Coconut Grove.