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Film Review: “The Homesman”

homesmanAlthough a beautiful, finely made film, this is also the saddest Western I’ve ever seen, tragic to the point of heartbreak. This makes sense since it takes an unflinching look at the real frontier experience and is definitely not some Hollywood fantasy. Three women in mid-19th Century Nebraska go mad from the strain of living on the raw, empty prairie. Unable to care for them, local folk decide to send them back East, a migration in reverse.

Hilary Swank gives an outstanding performance as Mary Bee Cuddy, the finest, truest example of a brave, good frontier woman in film I’ve ever seen, better even than Jean Arthur in Shane. I deeply admired her character as the movie went on and empathized with her struggles and disappointments, many at the hands of thoughtless, callous men. Her tragic, unexpected end simply made me want to weep.

On the other hand, George Briggs, the protagonist played by Tommy Lee Jones (who also directed), is the sorriest excuse for a Western hero who ever forked a horse. A larcenous, lying, shiftless drifter who thinks exclusively of himself, rescued from hanging by Cuddy’s unexpected arrival, Briggs’s sluggish development of the rudiments of a conscience as he travels with Cuddy and the madwomen back to Iowa constitutes the story’s moral arc. Despite occasional kindness and displays of frontier savvy and toughness, Briggs is never fully sympathetic, with instances throughout the film of his general bad character and others’ contempt and disregard for him. Jones gives his usual professional performance, completely committed to the role, unpleasant as it is.

Jones also did an outstanding job directing. Long shots of the bare, unforgiving Nebraskan plains with miserable sod huts cut into low hills to escape the punishing wind, effective backstories showing how each poor, suffering woman went mad, accurate mise-en-scene with authentic period detail throughout, and strong performances all around by well cast actors. Three particular standouts are John Lithgow as a good hearted, frontier minister; Tim Blake Nelson in a brief, but effective turn in one of his signature rustic roles, and Meryl Streep as the minister’s wife who takes the madwomen into her home in Iowa.

The film’s last scene is especially effective: the incorrigible reprobate Briggs dances and sings aboard a ferry headed back West, accompanied by a banjo and bones, with strong intimations of his own imminent death. Jones shows grace and style in this scene and I’m certain he meant to evoke the famous 19th Century painting of a young man dancing aboard a flatboat. Yet rather than evoke images of hope, progress, and growth, the conclusion only hints at more miserable violence.

This is a good Western, but not for folks who prefer stuff like Gene Autry or John Wayne flicks.

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