In the Old West three farmer's wives suffer from so-called Prairie Fever, a psychotic reaction to harsh living conditions and mental anguish. Headstrong and pious spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) bravely takes on the responsibility of caring for and ferrying Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknapp (Miranda Otto) and Gro Svendson (Sonja Richter) across the vast desert and plains to Iowa where a minister's wife (Meryl Streep) has agreed to take them into her care. On the way, Mary happens across George Biggs (Tommy Lee Jones, also co-writer and director), a crusty old army deserter and claim jumper dangling from a hangman's rope. Realizing the journey will be dangerous, Mary saves George from near death in return for help protecting the women along a perilous journey that tests them both.
Tommy Lee Jones has steadily built a second career as a director of lyrical, character driven westerns. He followed The Good Old Boys (1995) with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), a neo-western praised for its Sam Peckinpah-esque qualities, and the Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Sunset Limited (2011). Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout and co-produced interestingly enough by Luc Besson, Jones' fourth film has an intriguing true-life premise seldom explored in westerns save perhaps the recent low-budget effort Prairie Fever (2007) with DTV stars Kevin Sorbo and Dominique Swain, haunting scenery masterfully lensed by D.P. Rodrigo Prieto and great performances from a fine ensemble cast. Although some charged this was True Grit (2010)-lite, right down to casting Hailee Steinfeld in a small but significant role as a feisty teenager, in truth they are very different films.
Like many a great western auteur Jones displays a keen sense of the frontier landscape. Indeed, dwarfing settlements with its vast skies and unforgiving wilderness, the prairie is almost another character in this story, influencing events and shaping each protagonist from tenacious pioneer woman Mary Bee Cuddy to grizzled reprobate George Biggs and the various pitiful, ghostly women maddened through loss and alienation. Portraying the women with sympathy and sensitivity, Jones shows how the land saps their souls turning them into ghosts. Some are immigrants for whom English is a second language, which heightens their disorientation. There were those that found Mary too simillar the stoic, outspoken Maddy, heroine of True Grit, but the fact is Hilary Swank portrays exactly the sort of hard-bitten, no-nonsense woman who could survive on the frontier.
Jones carefully balances measured, precise, painterly images with offbeat scenes and quirky character work from the likes of John Lithgow, William Fichtner, James Spader (as a shady hotelier who embodies the heartless capitalism set to sweep away the pioneer spirit), Tim Blake Nelson (who has a crazy fight with Biggs) and the traumatized trio of Gummer, Otto and Richter. Even so it is noticeably the work of an actor-director. The measured pace savours every nuance of craggy characterization, taking its own cool time to unfold the plot with a some scenes proving extraneous or a bit of a plod. The set-up evokes The African Queen (1950) but the emphasis firmly on hardship rather than adventure leaves things occasionally exhausting though haunting and at times moving.
For the most part The Homesman gently stresses the importance of human warmth, love and relationships as a means of enduring the harsh realities of life. With patience and understanding Mary Bee Cuddy coaxes the humanity out of the traumatized women even as the experience takes a toll on her. Then late in the game the film throws a shock twist that sets things off balance, undoing everything we learned up to that point about one key character. Thereafter it becomes a significantly different story, not poorer necessarily but jarringly different, trading hitherto feminine values for masculine values, healing for violence, redemption for revenge. In the wake of this abrupt detour the third act shifts gears again as if trying to make sense of a nightmare, growing increasingly disheartened before Jones rounds the film off by performing a merry jig. While not always cohesive, it is a unique western drama that much like dust blown prairie can get under your skin.