There’s a hint of the Dust Bowl in Oscar-winner Hilary Swank’s face – a worn, rawboned quality straight out of a Walker Evans photograph.
That makes her the perfect Mary Bee Cuddy, the sturdy not-quite-old-maid of Tommy Lee Jones’ film, “The Homesman,” based on the Glendon Swarthout novel. Mary is genteel but practical, tough, and wholly aware she is no great beauty. “Plum damn plain,” one potential suitor calls her. “Plain as an old tin pail, and bossy,” is how George Briggs describes her.
Considering that Mary just rescued this rascal, Briggs (Jones) who made up his name on the spot, cutting him down from a vigilante’s noose, that’s not at all generous.
Swank lets us see the vulnerability and hurt underneath this flinty woman who has taken on the task of escorting three farm wives who have lost their minds in their corner of treeless, remote 1850s Nebraska. She practices songs she remembers on a cloth mock-keyboard until she can afford a real one, grimaces every time she considers her loveless life, and then puts away that hurt to get back to the matter at hand.
With claim-jumper Briggs coerced into helping, they will drive a jail wagon through five weeks of snowy early spring all the way to the Missouri River where the women will be handed off to someone who can get them to relatives Back East.
We’re shown how the women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer and Sonja Richter, all terrific) descended into madness. One buried three babies, killed by diphtheria. Another snapped and killed her own child, and the third, a Norwegian (Richter), gave up her sanity when her mother died, leaving her raving at her cruel brute of a husband.
The forlorn company passes through a wild land where armed teamsters are as dangerous as armed natives, where Indians and settlers alike desecrate each other’s graves, in search of clothes or blankets to aid their own winter survival.
“Homesman” is a quest parable set in a flat world of browns and greys, where spying that first cottonwood is enough to make Mary pause and marvel at just seeing a tree. Jones takes exceptional care documenting this world – the sod houses with their leaky walls and dirt floors, livestock prone to death by starvation, freezing or diseases the poor homesteaders had no clue how to cure.
Briggs and Cuddy are as hard as the land they travel through, and he’s pretty far gone. She is still compelled to acts of kindness, but in this environment, a pause to display a little decency can get you killed.
John Lithgow is a splendidly upright, if a tad hypocritical, preacher who charges Mary with this quest. William Fichtner is a hard-hearted husband to one of the women. Tim Blake Nelson makes a vivid impression as a teamster with thoughts of taking one of the crazy women for himself. James Spader is perfectly oily as an Irish-accented town developer. And Meryl Streep transforms into a Martha Washington look-alike as a kindly preacher’s wife.
Jones tells this story with care and a lack of hurry, a pace to fit an age when people traveled no faster than two mules pulling a wagon could carry them. It’s “True Grit” and “The African Queen” with a moment of “Lawrence of Arabia,” period-perfect and a total immersion in this world.
He gives himself a juicy entrance: We meet Briggs as he’s smoked out of a cabin he’s moved into without permission, an ornery cuss who likes his drink and loves his freedom. But Jones struggles a bit to make Briggs as light a character as he seems, and the little jigs he dances and songs he sings while drunk let you feel a serious actor straining to be whimsical.
But Swank’s Mary we meet behind the plow, “hardy pioneer stock” incarnate, a woman as dry and weathered as the land she’s moved to. And the triumph of this performance is letting us see that the strength Mary projects may be the only thing keeping her on top of that wagon, and not locked inside it.
Cast: Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones, Miranda Otto, John Lithgow, Meryl Streep
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Rated R (violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity)