You must love Westerns.
You must love Tommy Lee Jones.
You must love Hilary Swank.
So far, so good, but hold on, pardners. We're just getting started. For The Homesman to really hit home, there are a few more requirements:
You must not require a happy ending.
You must not insist on endearing protagonists.
You must appreciate misanthropy in its most tangible failings.
With those prerequisites met, my sense is that, in time, The Homesman may be embraced as a minor modern Western classic. It establishes Jones as a quadruple threat: He directed, co-starred, produced and co-authored the big-screen adaptation of Glendon Swarthout's 1988 novel of the same name. It's fair to assume Jones in the director's chair undoubtedly attracted Swank and a fabulous supporting cast, including Meryl Streep, James Spader, John Lithgow and Hailee Steinfeld, but perhaps Jones' greatest artistry here is his screenwriting (with co-writers Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver). It takes a significant craftsman to bring The Homesman's plain-speaking hard-cases to life—Jones was up to the task, and then some.
The American homesman is a seldom-told subchapter of United States history because it pushes against the idealism of the American dream. A homesman was a man paid to escort failed pioneers back to their homes. These odysseys, often from west to east, were defined by failure, and therein lies the story.
At the outset of The Homesman, spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) is enlisted as a "homesman" to take three women, each in various stages of mental illness, from their Nebraska homesteads eastward to Iowa.
"Your journey will be long, difficult and dangerous," the Rev. Alfred Dowd (Lithgow) tells Cuddy. "Bless you woman. Bless ye and keep ye."
The blessing becomes part curse when Cuddy and her charges come across George Briggs (Jones), a claim-jumping ne'er-do-well who is at the end of his rope, quite literally: He's tied-up, on horseback with a noose around his neck. With little room to negotiate, let alone breathe, Briggs promises to become Cuddy's surrogate homesman.
"Three crazy women and five weeks is a lot more than I bargained for," he later commiserates.
What follows is harsh business. The story's narrative is less of an arc than a straight line—quite literally, the group travels across the flat, desolate Nebraska plains, achingly captured with Oscar-caliber cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Argo, Brokeback Mountain).
A few noted critics have tagged The Homesman as a "feminist Western," but I can't agree with that. Too many Westerns corral females into roles as the whore-with-the-heart-of-gold and while there is none of that in The Homesman, "feminist Western" is faint praise. The Homesman is atypical in a much larger fashion. At its center is a lawless journey that required as much strength, perhaps more, than those textbook pioneers we celebrated in elementary school. The Homesman is a strong, multifaceted film not to be missed—unless you insist on the endearments of cowboys, whores and happy endings.