AFI Fest 2014: ‘The Homesman’

“The Homesman” is about despair in the desolate 1850s midwest.  You might be used to the homey warmth of the Little House on the Prairie series, but that has been stripped away by the harsh conditions and isolation in “The Homesman.”  A spinster recruits the titular homesman to help her take three mentally troubled women back to the civilization.

Set around the same time as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series (Wilder was born in 1867 and her family moved to Wisconsin in 1871. Her stories take place in Kansas and Wisconsin and eventually Minnesota.), you never feel any of the hope and faith. Instead there is desperation.

“The Homesman is also based on a book. Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver adapted Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel of the same name. Tommy Lee Jones directs in a lean, matter-of-fact fashion. There are no frills here. The light is stark and unforgiving.

A homesman is someone, usually a man, who takes on the responsibility of taking immigrants and pioneers back home. The original homesman is a woman, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). A former teacher from New York City, she ventured to the Nebraska Territory for opportunity in a small farming town. She has substantial holdings, but it’s not really clear how she gets all the farm work down.

Cuddy has gone courting in her pragmatic way. She cooks a fine meal for her neighbor, a man named Bob Giffen (Evan Jones). She sings to him while pretending to play the piano using a cloth runner with piano keys black and white blocked out. When she lays out practical reasons why Giffen should marry her, she’s bluntly turned down. There may be few women in the territory, but Cuddy is too plain and too bossy.

In this small community, after a particularly harsh winter, three young wives have mental breakdowns. One is inconsolable after losing her children to illness. One, perhaps suffering postpartum depression kills her infant. The third has married unwisely and suffers marital rape, rutted by a man determined to have children. When the sincere preacher of the local church, Reverend Alfred Dowd (John Lithgow) says, “There’s been some trouble about the women hereabouts,” there’s a tinge of bitter irony as so much has changed in American culture.

The isolation prevents consolation as neighbors live out of each other’s sight, even on the flat plains of Nebraska. Instead of being confined to a small cell, the women are imprisoned by the vast plains of hardship. Sometimes one other person is not enough and proximity breeds more than contempt, but boredom and empty routines.

At the church, the decision is made to have these three women (Arabella Sours, Theoline Belknap and Gro Svendsen) taken back East, to a church in Iowa. That means crossing the Missouri River and going through areas where Native Americans, who may be hostile, still roam. The men seem unwilling to go so Cuddy volunteers. She has lived “uncommonly alone” and is stiffly religious, a good Christian with such man-like resolute ways she inspires trust in the preacher.

This might be the wild Midwest, but there are still rules. When men find an outsider, George Briggs (Jones) squatting on another’s land, someone they believe has gone back East, perhaps to acquire a wife. The local men smoke him out and would hang him, but Cuddy decides to take him on because one person minding three crazy women as they cross the plains isn’t wise. Yet perhaps she has other intentions. She does tell Briggs,–a claim jumper and army deserter– “this might be the finest most generous act of your life.”

This is a familiar formula: Prim spinster with rough at the edges confirmed bachelor. Swank gives a brave performance but she’s not as old as Katherine Hepburn was in the 1951 “The African Queen,” the 1975 “Rooster Cogburn” or the 1956 “The Rainmaker.”  Hepburn was only 49 for “The Rainmaker” but 68 for “Rooster Cogburn.”   Swank is 40 this year. Surely if her Cuddy has smiled more men would have been attracted to her or had the isolation of the Midwest territories also rendered them insane?

As with the Hepburn dramas, Briggs is not untouched by his struggles against the elements with Cuddy and instead of suggested romantic feeling, there’s a carnal relief. Still, don’t expect a happy ending for either Briggs or Swank. Loneliness seems to be their fate. Would life in a more settled community brought relief? For Briggs, likely not. He seems uncomfortable when he finally reaches his destination.

While the movie gives us a new appreciation for our current treatment of the mentally ill, rape in marriage and camping in the wild, it doesn’t provide an inspiring female figure. In many ways, it seems to indicate that men are best suited for the hardships of pioneering and that women are best in the civilized environments. One wonders if Cuddy would not have become one of the original cat ladies or just needed a good dog to keep her company. I can’t help writing this because my collies are determined to become cinematic critics (more on that later) and I’m snuggled up on the sofa with a collie.

Still Tommy Lee Jones provides an unsentimental view of pioneers and pioneering, in stark contrast with the beloved “Little House on the Prairie” series. Both bring a certain type of truth to our understanding of history. Go west young man, but where will the lonely old men go and where do women fit in? This is a bitter Western about casualties in the war to win the west.





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