In the Twitter-obsessed film landscape, early responses to a film can latch onto compelling or provocative words and phrases that form part of a film’s critical reception with a certain lack of nuance. Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman has been called a ‘feminist Western’, and Hilary Swank’s central performance does lend weight to that argument. But exactly how it might be characterised as feminist differs; not merely because our central heroine can do all her male counterparts can do,like wielding a gun and farming her land (though this is true), but because of the film’s great sensitivity to her character and narrative arc as a marginalised individual, the strains placed on her due to her female-ness and ultimately her own limitations and shortcomings not as a ‘woman’ but an autonomous individual. With a deep understanding of the genre’s history and aesthetic (of the four films Jones has directed, this is the third Western), Jones creates a moving, thoughtful film about the inhospitality and division the frontier was built upon (No Country for Women?) that despite some obvious touches manages to really impress.
Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) is an unmarried woman, prosperous and respected in her in the town of Loup City in Nebraska. In an opening scene, she invites a friend and occasional business associate to dinner, at the end of which she matter-of-factly proposes marriage and explains the logical benefits to such an arrangement. The pleasant evening takes a turn as she is rudely rebuffed, impossible to marry as she is “bossy” and that old-timey euphemism, “plain” – two words that will reverberate not just through the narrative but in Cuddy’s psyche throughout the film. Meanwhile, three women in the town (Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter and Grace Gummer) have developed extreme mental disorders after various personal tragedies, and unable to be looked after need to be transported to a church in Iowa where a reverend has agreed to take them in. With no man in the town willing to make the trip, Cuddy enlists herself for the job, while forcing an unscrupulous claim jumper George Briggs (Jones) she saved from a hanging to come along for the perilous journey.
As much an inversion of the buddy road trip film as a Western, much of the film is dedicated to the rapport between Cuddy and Briggs. Swank’s performance is a powerful one, deeply layered as a figure that is strong and driven, but deeply tortured and unhappy as a product of her environment. Jones is somewhat against-type – his weathered face is mined for many great brooding and stoic scenes over the latter half of the film, but also prone to spontaneous moments of joy and foolishness, reminiscent of a character actor like Hank Worden who would provide comic relief in the Westerns of old. There’s a subtle perspective shift over the film as Jones’ character becomes more important to the film which although could appear as a problematic instance of white-knighting, feels like something different. His transformation has a sincerity to it, a product not of narrative necessity but from the character’s own deep empathy and respect that he forms for a quite extraordinary woman. A literate filmmaker, Jones seems to ape some of the interesting films of old of flawed men devoid of virtue rising to noble causes, reminiscient particularly of the central arc in Roberto Rossellini’s Il Generale Della Rovere amongst others.
There are some obvious gestures throughout, and the device of the three insane women in particular feels like a MacGuffin of sorts, a plot device for the age-old narrative of transporting cargo from A to B – there’s an obvious narrative similarity to Mad Max: Fury Road, but remaining as purely a narrative instrument despite flashbacks and introductory scenes for each. Their symbolic purpose, as products burned out and rejected from the awfulness and inhospitability of the deeply misogynistic Frontier settlements, feels tacky in its gross literalisation, especially compared to the considered and affecting look at the psychological toll it takes on Swank’s character. Nor do their scenes along the journey resonate, including one particularly unconvincing instance of a deus ex machine involving one of their actions. It’s a less than compelling element of the film, to say nothing of the fact that Australian viewers will likely be particularly disappointed at how little Miranda Otto gets to do. But the two characters the film is interested in are so richly layered and compelling in their chemistry that this aspect is easy to overlook.
Ultimately, it’s a stranger film than it appears on paper. The pacing feels deliberately stilted, and its rhythms are hard to pin down, often proceeding as a series of vignettes rather than a seamless journey, which gives it a peculiar sense of unpredictability and spontaneity throughout. And in this more segmented feel Jones is able to create atmosphere out of nowhere, like the palpable dread when approached by a gang of Native Americans, or the introspective, dreamy campfire scenes. His mastery of the visual form of the genre works well; using the widescreen ratio to terrific effect, capturing the sheer vastness of the landscape in its lateral dimensions, contextualising their journey as a mammoth undertaking in under a two hour runtime, combined with some stunning vistas adequately evoked on Madman’s Blu-ray of the film. It’s only unfortunate that it didn’t play on a big screen in either a Festival or theatrical capacity in Sydney. If there’s an unofficial quota of one revisionist Western allowed to screen a year, I’d have much preferred this genuinely thoughtful outing to the Coens knock-off Slow West. The Homesman might be a revisionist Western, but more than just winking at tropes and subverting conventions it’s a very sincere, moving look at the different voices an experiences which make up the fabric of the Old West in our cultural and historical imagination.