Some credits roll when you least expect them. Sometimes it’s relieving, like somebody suddenly remembered to flip the switch, and you can finally go home. And sometimes a jarring credit roll leaves you cold, like the script ran out of pages, or the production ran out of money.
Rarely do they arrive when you want them to. It’s either way too early or way too late.
But I can’t think of a recent film that ends like The Homesman. When those credits roll, you may shrug. Hell, you might even be angry, like many audiences were with the underappreciated The Grey. But if you’ve really honed in on The Homesman, you’ll be shaken. Maybe even speechless. It’s a perfect ending to a movie that isn’t perfect, but easily one of year’s best.
In his best directorial effort yet, nearly a decade after the terrific The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Tommy Lee Jones has crafted a film that’s boldly unsentimental and impossible to peg. It’s not a western, and he’d probably wince at you for calling it that. And it’s not an anti-western, which he’d scowl at you for. And it’s damn near impossible to talk about without spoiling all of the things that make it cook. To say too much, there are sharp turns certain to throw scores of viewers off the wagon. But if you hang on, you’ll be rewarded. Even if that reward is the feeling you’ve been kicked in the guts by a mule.
Adapted from a novel by Glendon Swarthout that I will soon be devouring, The Homesman is an unflinching tale of madness and survival in the fruitless, food-less, and mostly heartless grasslands of the heartlands in the 1850s. It’s told from a point of view we rarely see, that of women during those gritty times, and mostly centered upon poor Mrs. Mary Bee Cuddy. Living “uncommonly alone” on her sparse excuse for a farm, she’s become an aging spinster by being unmarried at the old age of 31. But spinster implies that she’s enjoying herself. The closest she gets to happiness is mining the piano on a piece of cloth, but she’s saving up for a melodian. She wants to marry someone … anyone, desperately, because she’s slowly dying of depression and isolation, and no plainswoman can survive those times without a husband. And she always makes a good case for it to potential suitors, outlying the benefits of merging meager mutual assets. But she’s always met by the same chilly rejection: “You’re plain as an old tin pail, and you’re bossy.” It sounds cruel to say that this is a role Hilary Swank was born to play. Her character suffers enough indignities. But it’s a role that nobody else could play like this. And whenever she hides her hurt, we wind up carrying it with her.
At the same time we’re meeting Mrs. Cuddy, we’re introduced to three other women from her tightknit, yet isolated little community. And they’re crazy beyond repair, each driven past madness by hardships worse than living in 1850s Nebraska. Theoline Belknap (Mirando Otto) went nuts after her cattle stock withered from disease, and she then killed her infant child (in the ballsiest 10 seconds of cinema all year: I yelled, “Oh My God!”). Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer, great when freed from the Sorkin prattle of The Newsroom) lost three kids to diphtheria. And the craziest of all is the snarling, biting Gro Svedsen (Sonja Richter), who refuses to move her dead mother’s body out of her bed, even while she’s being raped. It’s gruesome stuff, but Jones manages to portray these horrific things without ever being exploitive.
Arrangements are made to transport this trio of loons to a sanitarium in Iowa, but none of the no-good husbands will volunteer for what is typically a man’s job, hence the Homesman. But poor Mrs. Cutty, with nothing to lose, takes on the task. Perhaps out of the goodness of her heart. Perhaps out of spite for the townsmen who are less man than she is. With the women safely caged in a ricketty covered wagon, she embarks on this journey alone and soon finds “George Briggs” (Tommy Lee Jones) writhing by his neck from a noose atop his horse. He was put there for jumping claim on an abandoned property by boys who didn’t have the balls to hang him and wanted to the horse to do it for them. After much pleading, Mrs. Cutty decides to save his hide, but only under the condition that he helps her get the mentals across the big river. So off they head across the endless grasslands, brutal winter weather, and starry nights that give credence to that theory that the sky’s just a blanket with holes poked in it. Along the way, Cutty and “Briggs” (we figure it’s one of many pseudonyms the career deserter has used) unintentionally become surrogate parents to their maddened passengers, have their wills tested and their scruples scuffed by all kinds of trouble, and they discover that there’s no country for old men or old (or mentally ill) women.
This does sound like the stuff of westerns, with the craggy Jones playing Rooster Cogburn to pious Swank’s Eula Goodnight. But this isn’t about big hats, Indians, revenge, or getting from point A to B. It never goes where you expect it to as it tells a new, straightforward story of the hells of being a woman in frontier times. And just the hells of frontier times, period. But it’s never lingering or finger-pointing. It’s unsentimental and plainspoken. It makes salient points (without acting like it’s making a point) about how we treat the mentally ill and the dead. As Jones says, “People talk about death and taxes, but when it comes to crazy, they get hushed up.” But it never beats you across the head, because Tommy Lee Jones is a patient, mature, and doggedly naturalistic director who doesn’t cotton to cliches or melodramatic hooey.
Desperation is rarely acted so well, and Rodrigo Preito’s camera captures their desolation painterly. Almost every moment of The Homesman deserves to be framed in a gallery, with shots of moonlight skylines and endless horizons that would make John Ford’s ghost jealous. That gorgeous photography is awe-inspiring, not showy or intrusive in its long, patient takes. And it’s everything you see movies on the big screen for.
I can’t tell of the sadly beautiful places that it goes. Where I went from liking the film to loving it might be the point where audiences head for the doors. But what is undeniable about The Homesman is the power of its leads. Hillary Swank gives the best female lead, or any gender lead, performance of the entire year. She gets under your skin, effortlessly, and you feel yourself going mad along with her. And Jones is a revelation. As a man continually torn between his drunken selfish instincts and begrudging heroism, he’s far from the lovable, quip-cracking Tommy Lee Jones we typically see. And in the best scene of the film, when an end-of-her-rope Mrs. Cutty begs “Briggs” to marry her (not for romance, just for practicality and survival’s sake), both actors effortlessly bruise your heart. It’s a scene that should be in an Oscar reel, but probably won’t be because these actors never seem to be acting. If their performances were any more lived in, they’d probably die of of diphtheria.