“The Homesman,” based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, feels like Larry McMurtry’s novels of The Old West. Here, people work very hard just to stay alive and are in constant danger – not only from random indigenous war parties, but also from outlaw gangs who enjoy a lot of roaming-around freedom (because there’s too much open territory for The Law to cover). Life is short, difficult, brutal and often violent. Then you die. And usually prematurely because of the distinct lack of medical care.
For some of the formerly-genteel settlers of the Nebraska Territory, the hardships are a little too much to endure. Three pioneer women in one small community suffer mental breakdowns from causes ranging from losing family to diphtheria to watching crops dry up and the livestock starve. These three women are beyond help, at least from their beleaguered “40 acres and a mule” husbands, who are in no position to provide assisted living and are in dire need of replacement wives: healthier, heartier versions who can thrive on the rugged frontier. The trouble is, what to do with the marginalized psychotics?
Fortunately, the church comes to the rescue. Or at least, well-meaning church folk. There’s a Methodist minister’s wife over the river in Iowa who will take them all in, but they have to get there. And by covered wagon, that’s going to take several weeks… at least. The moral leader of the little prairie community, Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow), tries to draw lots among the able-bodied men to see who will deliver the needy women. But the one who draws the black bean refuses to go, which leaves the stalwart single woman among them, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). She happens across a claim-jumper hog-tied on his horse with his neck tethered to a rope hanging from a large tree. It seems that they left George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) to die as soon as his horse moves, but they rode off before actually witnessing it. He unashamedly begs her to free him, but first she makes him promise that he will help her. Of course, she could rightfully figure that he might not be the kind of man who keeps his promises. But she’s about as desperate for help as he is. So the unlikely pair winds up taking the three women in a covered wagon (which looks more like a jailhouse on wheels).
Yeah, you gotta be rough and tough to survive in this country. You can go for days without seeing another living creature. And then the ones you do see can give you a lot of trouble. You have to find feed for your mules and horses and somehow locate water. Most of the time, there’s not enough to eat. The weather can turn quickly. And you can suddenly find yourself in more danger than you can handle. The journey itself is enough to test the sanity of even the most stable. And these two aren’t exactly the paradigms of normalcy.
Tommy Lee Jones knows how to play the part of the grizzled old roustabout, ornery and profane and independent. Hilary Swank turns in a finely-tuned and nuanced performance of the self-reliant – but still needy – frontier settler who’s probably too determined and willful for her own good. There are some stark scenes in this film that will be upsetting to genteel viewers. People do not always behave well here. And there’s a commensurate amount of tedium, portraying a very long journey through open plains. And yet, there’s a certain authentic feel to this strange epic, and, for the Christian, a frank portrayal of real people actually sincerely praying aloud, a sight not often seen in contemporary Hollywood movies.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.