Here’s an interesting one I finally caught up with this week, still in theaters here in the Valley:
The Homesman—It’s not the sort of movie you’d recommend for lighthearted holiday viewing—essentially, it’s one serious downer after another. Spoiler alert: this movie offers a woman losing three babies to diphtheria, a man sexually violating his wife while her mother looks on, and—get ready—a woman tossing her newborn into the pit of an outhouse.
The task of transporting these three near-catatonic women from their wretched Nebraska Territory town back east to a church haven in relatively civilized Iowa falls to Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a capable unmarried farmer. She rescues a scruffy claim jumper (Tommy Lee Jones) from lynching in return for a vow that he’ll accompany her on the trek. He does, and further dangers, miseries and humiliations ensue.
If you can steel yourself to these horrors and heartaches, this bitter western, directed by Jones and boasting a cast that includes the likes of James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Lithgow, Barry Corbin and Meryl Streep, is worthwhile. It’s tragic, certainly, but it’s vigorous and expansive; it feels alive.
Jones seems to be a real moviemaker. In this film as in his previous feature, 2005’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he shows both an eye and an unembarrassed readiness to engage the issues at the core of the conflicted American soul.
He also gives his usual effortlessly commanding performance. For most of the film, however, the real star is Swank. She’s heartbreaking as this strong but emotionally impoverished woman, starved for music, quietly desperate to find a man who doesn’t think she’s too "bossy" to marry, pathetically trying to make a whimsical game of naming her mules. She’s supposed to be “plain,” but even bereft of makeup she is, of course, a fine-boned beauty. If you can look past this Hollywood convention, though, it’s a superb and devastating performance.
The Homesman is based, by the way, on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout. Odd to think he’s the same guy who wrote Where the Boys Are.