Back in 2005, Tommy Lee Jones made his directorial debut with the gritty (and somewhat gruesome) The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a neo-western with a distinctly Peckinpahvian flavor. Now he returns with The Homesman, an oddball oater about a cagey claim-jumper who partners with a stern spinster to take three madwomen to Iowa and thence to their homes back East. In contrast to Three Burials, this one counts as a retro-western—“retro” as in retrograde with regard to fundamental depictions of generic tropes, not as in old-school throwback.
The film was adapted by Jones and two other screenwriters from the novel by Glendon Swarthout, whose works have previously provided source material for the John Wayne swan song The Shootist and, perhaps more telling given The Homesman’s unwieldy mix of earnest intentions and batshit craziness, Stanley Kramer’s Bless the Beasts and Children, wherein a ragtag bunch of misfit campers derogatorily labeled the Bedwetters take on Great White Hunters involved in a wild buffalo safari. All this is to say that no doubt some of the problems inherent with The Homesman’s abrupt shifts in tone can be laid at the doorstep of the original novel.
For a while, it seems the film intends something uncommon: to speak for the experiences of frontierswomen caught in the clutches of harsh terrain and even harsher menfolk and driven thereby beyond the brink of sanity. But therein lies the rub. The Homesman speaks for its female characters, but, with the notable exception of Hilary Swank’s upright and uptight Mary Bee Cuddy, never lets them speak for themselves. Even worse is Meryl Streep’s Methodist matriarch, who doesn’t even want to hear about the women’s plight. When asked, reasonably enough, if she has the skill set to care for their needs, she replies rather ominously: “I think this room can hold them.” (As though the Black Mariah that serves as their transport from Nebraska to Iowa weren’t indignity enough.)
Though the film allots Mary Bee a modicum of agency (as Buster Shaver, reliably crusty character actor Barry Corbin allows, “You’re as much a man as any man”), it then proceeds to cruelly yank the rug out from under her. Plucky she may be, but Mary Bee really (and I mean really) needs to get herself a man. Her initial humiliation and rejection makes good sense in terms of establishing her character, but the turn taken after her night of passion with Tommy Lee’s squirrelly George Briggs works only as a desperate bid to clear the way for the story’s true focus: on writer-producer-director-star’s Briggs. Even worse is the way that the women, until then unresponsive to external stimuli, suddenly trail behind him like so many sheep. If The Homesman seeks to free these women from benighted tyranny, it can only think to replace that regime with a benevolent dictatorship.
It also doesn’t help that the central relationship between Mary Bee and Briggs recalls that of Mattie and Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, another retro-western exemplar. (Just in case the resemblance eludes you, Jones has Hailee Steinfeld turn up in a thankless walk-on.) Early shots of the horizon are evocative of vintage John Ford, and the film’s handling of Native Americans is straight out of The Searchers, except these Kiowa get even fewer lines than Chief Scar. Equally dubious are The Homesman’s intimations that it cares about the plight and position of madness within society, albeit one as primordially atomized as that of the Nebraska Territory circa 1850. But don’t be fooled. Witness another line delivered by Corbin’s improbably named Buster Shaver: “People like to talk about death and taxes, but when it comes to crazy, they stay hushed up.” If what they have to say on the subject is as remotely superficial as The Homesman, maybe the less said, the better.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 14—25.