Okay, this is a Western. One of the modern ones. And by that I mean the non-violent, shit it was tough out there, drive you nuts with its cruelty. And then kill ya. Ones. We are some way past the fun of John Wayne – or even Clint Eastwood – and into the meaningful but brusque world of star and director (oh yes) Tommy Lee Jones. For the frontier has driven three women over the edge, and they must be taken to civilisation by a godly woman (Hilary Swank) and her employee, the bit-of-a-tosser Tommy Lee Jones. One of these people, and I’m not sure which, is The Homesman.
Not sure what to make of this film, if I’m honest. It starts by being insulting about the looks of Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank), then portrays her as bluntly and not untiresomely pious as she sits in a tiny church where the creepy Reverend (John Lithgow) bemoans the loss of sanity in town and the lack of good men to act on the problem. Cuddy steps up and says she’ll take the women to a nice person many days away – where they can be looked after, though I suspect that would become chained to a wall after things get too hard. And so, in a world without kindeness or compassion, she meets the three mad women and the wooden box she will lock them in for the journey.
You know, this is one of those films that makes the fun of a good chase, shootout in a saloon, or improbable John Wayne romance seem a bit childish. It has a sensitive maturity to it that is at odds with things I want to watch, but the Homesman is so beautifully shot and pleasantly episodic in its road-movie-across-a-dustbowl nature that old Jack slid through it easily enough. Hard tacks, mind.
The three mad women are that way for good reasons. Lovely, contained, agonised performances come from all three – albeit recognising a Streep-child (Grace Gummer) and Aragorn fancier (Miranda Otto) pulled me out of the story somewhat. Their task is to be deeply, desperately sad and mad, something underlined as their back-stories sneak out (dead babies and other horrors). They more than succeed.
And then an old shit joins the party. Tommy Lee Jones directs (and writes!) himself as George Briggs. He’s a disliked and dislikable drifter, hanging on for his fee no matter what. He’s an unsympathetic drunk and a horrible companion for Cuddy as they fight the unceasing wind, empty landscape, Native Americans and associated trade issues, hunger and proper nastiness. Briggs brings his own special nastiness to the pious Cuddy and – between this old shit and solitary young woman – another kind of madness shows its vile face. So have some chocolate digestives and a strong coffee to hand – you’ll need them.
Do they get there? Is Meryl Streep any good? How near to decent does Jones let Briggs get…? Watch the film. I caught it on the BBC iPlayer, so you may have to rent the thing. There aren’t any lessons for the old or the middle-aged apart from don’t be a total drunkard and self-serving shit to the pure-hearted young uns. And don’t live on a frontier. They’re horrible.
Mesmerising to watch; hard to be near; funless. That’s The Homesman.