Here’s a film of the old west mixing pessimism and optimism while focusing on feminism.  It’s not the yippy-ki-oh Gene Autrey/Roy Rogers kind of oater, but more like the John Ford/John Wayne tough hombre saga.

In the 1850s we’re introduced to small farming settlement that’s been ravaged by disease and crop failure. Three women in the town have gone mad after a particularly devastating year (one has lost all three of her children to disease in months), and the townspeople decide that someone should take them to a sanitarium back east. The task falls on a headstrong spinster named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hillary Swank), who then recruits a drunken loner George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) to help after none of the men in town offer assistance.  Jones (co-wrote, directed and stars) as the title character, a surly old bandit who’s brutally blunt in telling the plucky frontierswoman that she’s “as plain as an old tin pail.” Not blessed with matinee idol handsomeness, Jones is well cast as Briggs, a grubby, unkempt character with a disreputable past, coupled with a hardscrabble face resembling a hunk of chewed gristle.

Cuddy embodies a hardy pioneer indicative of the fortitude it took to succeed on the frontier. Others, such as the three “cuckoo clocks” she volunteers to escort back East, echo the consequences that such a demanding life could put on those of a less resilient temperament.    “People like to talk about death and taxes, but when it comes to crazy, they stay hushed up,” notes a townsperson.  This represents two extremes of the horizons in this sturdy cross-country western set in the Nebraska Territories.  Here’s a tale that’s a refreshing take on traditional Hollywood Westerns.  It has the unique advantage of exploring a relatively overlooked chapter of America’s past.

Cuddy is a stalwart yet plain 31-year-old toiling behind her plow. A relative success among a community of hard-luck farmers, she still lacks a husband, which may be for the best, considering the unhappy state of the three young wives that form the heart of the film: Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer, the daughter of Meryl Streep) lost three children to diphtheria; Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) murdered her infant; and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) appears to be possessed by demons.

In contrast, Cuddy’s compassionate portrayal offsets the impression the frontier had turned these women feral. The town preacher (John Lithgow) decides the only thing to be done is to pack them up and drive them back to Iowa, where a Methodist minister’s wife has offered them hospice.  Meryl Streep plays the kindly character, (a turnaround from her two recent screen appearances: the venomous harridan in “August, Osage County” and the witch in the current “Into the Woods”).  No man will take charge so it falls on Cuddy to head up this lunatic expedition.  As she’s setting out, Cuddy happens upon wild card Briggs (Jones), a claim-jumping army deserter with a noose around his neck and an unsteady horse beneath him. He’s not in much of a position to negotiate, which means Cuddy can enlist his help in exchange for saving his life. A proud and devoutly religious woman, Cuddy isn’t normally the type to ask for help, but lately, she seems to have recognized that life might be a little less arduous with someone to share it with, and while the thought is nowhere in her mind at the time, a bonding experience such as this could be a way of auditioning a suitable mate.

This is a western journey in reverse. Instead of a western trek, the rolling sanitarium with barred windows and hard-wood top is heading east with those who couldn’t make it on the frontier.  Such a mission could all too easily have slipped into condescending comedy, but instead, Jones allows himself — along with several other unflattering male characters, including those played by a randy Tim Blake Nelson and a dandy James Spader, to serve as the butt of whatever humor exists.

Jones comfortably operates within his familiar curmudgeonly old coot mode, within a framework of cantankerous mannerisms which embrace shtick. From the character’s powder-keg introduction to his final jig, Jones transforms George from the grumps he’s played in the past, creating yet another memorable antihero. Still, he’s most charitable toward Swank, the no-nonsense actress with the chops that convey the quiet suffering her duty-bound character holds inside.  Here, we are reminded of the young girl in “True Grit” who stands up to adult authority in seeking redress for her murdered father.

As a director Jones never seems to indulge excess on the part of his cast. Though the characters are strong, the performances are understated. Even the three ladies settle into a state of near-catatonia after awhile, rather than indulging their various “hysterias.” In the past, people have whispered about Jones’ attitudes toward women; with this film, he says a thing or two on the subject with a sensitivity that comes as a welcome surprise.

Currently in limited release, you might have to mosey along the trail to a find a picture house screening “The Homesman.

By: Alex Reynolds

Providing a Fresh Perspective for Burlington and Hamilton.

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