It isn’t perfect, but Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman is one of the richest, most personal, most beautiful, most disturbing and ultimately strangest films of the year — a must-see movie that is going to get steamrolled by the onslaught of upcoming Christmas fare. In other words, beat a path to The Homesman on opening weekend. Chances are it isn’t going to be here more than two weeks, tops — yet it’s one of 2014’s best films. Logistics (there are only so many screens) and the Christmas rush to be in theaters on that all important Dec. 25 pretty much guarantee an early demise for both this and the equally estimable The Babadook.
Those who saw Jones’ 2005 film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (his only other theatrical feature) will recognize both a similarity in tone and even plot here. In his first film, Jones played a character who is transporting the body of his friend home to be buried — honoring a promise he made to the man. Here he’s on a not dissimilar journey — charged with helping to transport three mentally unstable women back to Iowa and, presumably, eventually to their families in the east. The Homesman, however, strikes me as far more successful and emotionally complex than The Three Burials. The film has been compared to the Coens’ True Grit (2010) — in large part because of a deep vein of dark humor, and the fact that it’s based on a revisionist western novel — but this is, I think, misleading. The Homesman is a more somber film. (That said, I have seen the case made that Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy could be True Grit‘s Mattie Ross grown up — and I have no serious argument with that reading.)
The film’s structure is seductive in the way it integrates the elements leading to the film’s central story. It starts by introducing us to 31-year-old Mary Bee Cuddy, a self-made pioneer woman with her own home and spread in the Nebraska Territory. An accomplished and unfortunately forthright woman, she has marriage on her mind and has set her sights on oafish neighboring homesteader Bob Giffen (Evan Jones). But he turns her proposal down flat, calling her bossy and plain (sentiments that will be echoed by another down the road), and stating his intention to go back east to find a wife. The dubious wisdom of his choice is quickly brought home by the mental breakdowns of three such women from the east who cannot cope with the hardships of the Territory, the roughness of their lives and possibly of their husbands. When it is decided that these three — Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto), Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) — need to be transported back east, it eventually transpires that the task falls upon Cuddy to undertake the trip.
Into this mix comes a claim-jumper, whose name almost certainly isn’t George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), even though that’s the name he finally gives Cuddy after she rescues him from a singularly gruesome lynching. (He’s been left on his horse with a noose around his neck waiting for the horse to walk away.) Cuddy frees him only after extracting a promise that he’ll do what she tells him — of course, that means help take three women east. It is not something that Briggs is keen on, but the promise — and the prospect of $300 on arrival — binds him to the foolhardy enterprise, which turns out to be every bit as bad as it sounds, and worse.
The bulk of the film, of course, follows the trip east — though a large part of it involves the relationship between Cuddy and Briggs, since there’s really no one else around for the most part. (The three women hardly count since they barely speak, if they speak at all, and never in any coherent manner.) The story also takes a couple of strange — and very dark — turns that are best left to the movie to reveal. Let’s just say that while what happens is unexpected, it makes perfect sense in the context of the story and serves to make an already compelling story just that much more absorbing. It is not exactly a pleasant story, but I would call it shattering rather than depressing (as some have done). And it is not a story without a smattering of hard-earned hope inside all the deprivation and futility depicted. Catch it while you can. Rated R for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity.