There’s a scene in the middle of The Homesman, a period piece directed by actor Tommy Lee Jones that opens tomorrow at the Cedar Lee Theatre, in which George Briggs (Jones) warns Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) about the type of people she might encounter on her five-week trip across the barren plains between Nebraska and Iowa. He says the traders will want to steal whatever she has and then kill her and the Indians will want to kill her and then rape her. That’s the kind of image that the film, which is based on the 1988 novel of same name by Glendon Swarthout, paints of the United States in the 1850s. It’s certainly grim stuff. Well-crafted and well–acted, the movie has a powerful first half but is ultimately anti-climactic.
The film’s first half centers on Mary Bee, a spinster from New York who’s successfully toughed it out in the small town of Loup City, Nebraska, where she owns a small plot of land. When three women from her church begin to show signs of mental illness, she volunteers to transport them to Iowa where they can get the help they need. As she’s about to embark on her journey, she rescues George from hanging (he’s literally tied to a rope when she cuts him down) and makes him travel with her as payment. George isn’t happy about having to transport the women but Mary Bee has also promised him $300 if they make it to their destination, so that incentive keeps him going.
The journey is particularly arduous. The women fight with one another. They try to run off. And there’s a run-in with a group of Indians and an encounter with an aggressive wanderer who tries to run off with one of the women. All the while, George and Mary Bee find a way to get out of one scrape after another. But the trials and tribulations begin to take their toll, particularly on Mary Bee. The camaraderie that the two develops keeps the proceedings from becoming too bleak. When that partnership dissolves in the film’s second half, the movie stumbles a bit and (literally) limps to the finish. Still, the film is so well-crafted (Oscar nominee Rodrigo Prieto handled the cinematography), that it’s hard to criticize the shortcomings of its plot.