Wow, what a cast! It is a treat to see so many women in a film. “The Homesman” stars two-time Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Boys Don’t Cry”) and Tommy Lee Jones, who took home an Oscar for “The Fugitive.” Jones also co-wrote the screenplay and directs.
The movie is being called a Western, but Jones makes it clear that his film is not about gunslingers and cowboys. It’s about the harrowing existence for women on the frontier and the crazy-making desolation and isolation for homesteaders who live miles apart from each other.
“The Homesman” takes place in 1855. Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a courageous 31-year-old woman who is considered “plain as an old tin pail” by the townsfolk. She’s single, strong and has made a successful homestead for herself.
When three local women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) lose their minds, a pastor’s wife (Meryl Streep in a cameo role) in Iowa agrees to take them in. None of the men in Nebraska step up, so out of compassion and a desire to do what’s right, Cuddy volunteers to transport the madwomen from Nebraska to Iowa via horse-drawn wagon.
The journey proves far more treacherous than expected. The women are so crazy they have to be chained in the back of the wagon. Up front, Cuddy is facing the elements of wind, dust and rain in the hostile, barren land that stretches forever under the forbidding sky. The hurdles keep escalating.
Cuddy seizes an opportunity for help. By chance, she comes across a scoundrel who goes by the name of George Briggs (Jones). He is atop a horse with a noose around his neck and tied to a tree. In exchange for saving his life, Cuddy demands that he help her make the arduous journey across the Missouri River to Iowa.
It’s hard for us to imagine what it was like then. We, who wake up, shower and hit a Starbucks for a mocha caramel cappuccino. As co-screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald told the press, “The characters in the movie have less access to healthcare and nutrition than we do, as well as to material comforts, but I think the human condition is the same. People have always suffered and they continue to suffer for various reasons. This is a look at the suffering of those people at that time in American history, which is something we have not had the occasion to explore honestly before.”
Supporting cast includes James Spader in a splendid Spader-ish role. “The Blacklist” star clearly delights in another villainous character. Tim Blake Nelson thrills in a violent scene as a drunken screwball, and Academy Award-nominees John Lithgow and Hailee Steinfeld top off the stellar cast.
The screenplay, co-written by Jones, Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, is as bleak as a Cormac McCarthy book, but is based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout.
Jones and Swank have been singing each other’s praises. “It’s wonderful to work with Hilary Swank,” Jones told the press. “She read the script rapidly and understood it almost instantaneously. She was always prepared and very creative.”
Swank said, “Working with Tommy and seeing his nuanced performance is something I will never forget. I don’t know if I can fully express my respect for him. He has a way of getting across to each member of his crew and to his actors exactly what he needs for them to bring to the film and to the story. He always knew just what to say to me. I am sure that his decades of acting make him the brilliant director that he is. I was exhausted at the end of the shoot just acting, and he was writing, producing, directing and starring — that blows my mind.”
One caveat: The pace is painstakingly slow, and the story is grim, but the human drama and conflict was so rich I can’t shake this film out of my head.
“The Homesman” opens in theaters Friday Nov. 14. Rated R. 120 min.
Watch the trailer:
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.