Opening 18 Dec 2014
Tommy Lee Jones
Writing credits: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver, Glendon Swarthout
Principal actors: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter
Shots of majestic clouds towering over a vast, stark, windswept landscape where high, dancing grass obliterates the horizon sets tonal value while introducing a main character: the Great Plains. Pioneer Westerns are often romanticized, but director Tommy Lee Jones does not shirk from confronting the sometimes-gruesome realities 1854 homesteaders endured in his adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel.
Nebraska Territories: an isolated community recognizes three families are in dire need of help. Their womenfolk, spent and out-of-touch with reality, should be returned to civilization posthaste, their men must carry on here. Independent, stalwart Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers, obligating Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow). Her first inkling of what lay ahead is the blacksmith’s (Barry Corbin) adding iron wrist-guards inside and a door lock on the wagon. Spotting Briggs (Jones) hanging about and after a testy exchange, they strike a bargain; this cantankerous claim-jumper will accompany Cuddy on the arduous 3-5-week journey. Once the women are securely aboard, Cuddy’s mother hen approach is illuminating; Briggs, a survivalist and perceptive, is sharp-eyed. Following a portentous experience, Cuddy becomes discombobulated with demeaning consequences. So, when Briggs cautions the 16-year old maid, he speaks with respect begot from hindsight. Life’s boomerangs can harbinger unforeseen outcomes.
Filmed in New Mexico, USA in forty-two days complete with challenging weather conditions, and a tight budget, adds authenticity. The cast is stellar: Jones and Swank embody complicated, disparate personalities, as do Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter’s starkly unnerving depiction of effects from having a breakdown. Rodrigo Prieto’s dramatic cinematography and Marco Beltrami’s music boost, whereas Roberto Silvi’s editing is disorienting, especially and unfortunately the flashbacks introducing the three wives.
Important to appreciating The Homesman is historical information. Eager to own land but ignorant of the physical conditions, many were naively lured to the plains. Prairie, steppe and grassland covers much of the Great Plains that stretches south from Canada to Mexico lying between west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains; the area now provides substantial U.S. wind power. Perhaps one has to live on the plains to fully understand the loneliness that accompanies remoteness and how the wind can whittle away at the soul. I have, albeit over a century later, and it is just as depicted in this woebegone film. (Marinell Haegelin)