Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy sets the wobbly tone of Tommy Lee Jones’s peculiar western The Homesman. The actress’s latest performance is intensely physical and typically effortful, laboring to convey strife, relentless determination, and conflicting emotions. Within five minutes, Cuddy mans a horse-drawn tiller, fusses with table settings, brushes her hair and scrutinizes her eyebrows, sings a hymn, and pumps the hell out of some well water. That last act is meant to impress a neighbor (Evan Jones) she intends to marry. Her proposal is uncomfortably insistent, pragmatic to the point of delusion: The couple could share capital and “produce” children. The man refuses before calling Cuddy “bossy” and “plain,” and after he leaves, Rodrigo Prieto’s camera lingers above Cuddy, alone in spartan domesticity. Much like Jones’s film, any nuance in her expression is the product of pained exertion.
Rejected and lacking for prospects in the Nebraska Territories of 1854, Cuddy finds an outlet for her combination of piety and truculence. She agrees to transport three ailing women (Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, and Grace Gummer) to a church in Iowa, where they can be tended to before being moved back east. Each has succumbed to a state of near-catatonia after being wrecked by disease, tragedy, and bad marriage. Their circumstances are revealed in a series of lurid, obliquely constructed flashbacks intended to reveal the harsh conditions of frontier life. These shocking, confusing scenes are uneasily placed between others that establish the unlikely partnership between Cuddy and George Briggs (Jones), the drifter and deserter Cuddy hires to assist her in this journey.
The Homesman is never subtle, but the film nonetheless makes persistent and compelling distinctions between compassion and empathy. Cuddy discovers Briggs in a posture that suits this western’s offbeat status: Briggs is astride a horse, but there’s a noose around his neck. Cuddy cuts the pitiable, possibly drunken man loose, and offers him a job out of desperation rather than fellow-feeling. As they head east on an episodic journey through bleached, arid plains, both characters confront trials of soul and body. Cuddy crumbles under the wailing of the cargo she’s meant to care for, and to compensate for her weakness, she leaves her party behind in order to restore a pillaged gravesite, and nearly dies for her charity. The film is also acute in confusing selfishness and bravery: When the group approaches some menacing Pawnees, Briggs has to stop playing the rapscallion and negotiate them out of trouble. It’s unclear whether he’s more interested in saving himself or the women behind him.
The first two acts of The Homesman are as ungainly and interesting as its main characters. The film enacts plenty of contradictions: It situates the model of a Strong Female Character alongside three other women who are exploited for suspense and shock value, places convincingly iconoclastic figures in tried-and-true western tropes, and manages to project a consistency of vision despite an erratic tone. All of this strange intrigue falls by the wayside in the final act, where Jones’s Briggs comes to dominate the proceedings and the film betrays too many of the tics of a vanity project. Jones attempts to maintain a reserve of psychological complexity as Briggs becomes class warrior, savior of women, and irascible firebrand all at once. (No less than Meryl Streep arrives, in a brief cameo, to sanctify him.) One extended scene finds Briggs taking cartoonish revenge on a cartoonish hotelier, played by James Spader in another distracting bit part. If there’s any ambiguity to be found in the film’s prolonged last gasps, which reach for tragedy, but only sow more epistemic confusion, it’s of a mawkish and unpalatable variety.