When we think about how we came to conquer and inhabit the American West, there is usually an image of a covered wagon creaking along in a losing race against the sun toward the shores of California. Seldom, if ever, do we picture those pioneers going east.
"The Homesman" is a story of one such journey, and though there's not a gunfight to be found, it's as critical a depiction of our westward expansion as anything you'll see in the saloon-drenched cinema of the past 100 years. Lost, it seems, in all these tales of how America covered 2,500 more miles in 1850 than it did 60 years earlier (nearly the distance from Lisbon to Moscow) is the eternal hardship of settling in such hard, unforgiving country. We can barely fathom it now—hunting all of our own food, farming our own crops and engaging in the very difficult work of building communities in the middle of nowhere, disconnected from most of the basic conveniences of life.
If it does nothing else, "The Homesman" brings that sacrifice, perseverance and calamity to life. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is the single proprietor of her own farm in what would now be Loup City, Neb. She desperately wants a husband, but as she explains to multiple men, it's for practical reasons. The prospective husband would get her land and Mary Bee would give him children. And yet, the few men that pass her way all tell Mary Bee that she is too plain for them, which has to be particularly humiliating given that they are almost in "last woman on Earth" territory here.
The town has been taken its toll on nearly everyone, and three wives who have lost children to disease or have not been able to produce sons have been deemed crazy, victims of prairie madness, a very real affliction that devastated many city dwellers who went west in the 19th century. Mary Bee volunteers to take the three women back east to Iowa, but she needs a man to go along with her for extra protection and, hopefully, guidance and navigation. The best she can find is George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed). He's a criminal, probably a drunk and possibly not much good.
Hilary Swank hasn't done much lately. Two Oscars in five years is pretty incredible, but there's not much you'd want to see in the 10 years since "Million Dollar Baby." This is a solid effort, but not spectacular. Likewise, while it's nice to see some broader comedy from Tommy Lee Jones, his performance is not a daredevil act by any means. Neither performance disappoints but they won't knock your socks off, either.
Perhaps that's because it's a rare movie where the real star has no lines. After Jones introduces the conditions and the two central characters, the rest of "The Homesman" is about the slow journey east. There seems to be a surprising amount of snow on the ground during the stated late spring/early summer trip, but no doubt plenty of settlers faced similar conditions. The point still holds, though: The America we know would be impossible without those who braved the unforgiving plains and desert, to say nothing of various marauders and illnesses that were also part of the bargain.
And that point does seem to be the one Jones wants to make here. Though both Mary Bee and George Briggs face their own obstacles, "The Homesman" is not about characters who change throughout their journey but rather how the journey pushes them. More than anything, it's a somber elegy and homage to the American West, whether we're talking about the real one, the one early settlers imagined they were destined to explore or the one we imagine in hindsight.