Eastward the Women
Directing and starring again, and co-writing (from a Glendon Fred Swarthout novel at one time optioned by Paul Newman) as well as co-executive producing, Tommy Lee Jones does another purposeful-journey Western morality parable. The Homesman may lack the spark of his 2005 directorial début The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada but nonetheless rates on its people who, one from unpromising beginnings -- modeled after Eli Wallach as that hangman’s toy, “Ugly” Tuco -- grow in stature and, in spite of their clichéd-ness, into viewers’ friends.
On the whole diagramming does disservice to narratives, but this one invites the drawing of two interlocking circles. Mary Bee Cuddy (Nebraska native Hilary Swank) dominates the unshared portion of the first one before being daringly disappeared from the unshared part of George Briggs’s (Jones) second one, with the two characters playing off against one another in the overlapping middle.
Much of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s stark footage depicts humans silhouetted against changing skies that occupy a third or more of the screen. This is 1855 Nebraska Territory (shot in northeast New Mexico), borderline frontier untamed by the sparse sodbusters who barely contain the land. From back East, Miss Mary Bee is a tough godly woman who has done well farming, plowing and harvesting on her lonesome. She is 31 and achingly lonely, her first marriage proposal, to a local lad, flatly rejected because she is pale, plain and “bossy.”
The Rev. Dowd (John Lithgow) worries about her but blesses her when, after a bean-drawing in his near-empty prairie church, she volunteers as substitute to transport three crazy women -- four in the novel -- across the Mississippi and into an Iowa town. Brief and confusing flashbacks pointlessly posit the three’s madness as the result of issues of conception, child-bearing and –burying, but since they are struck dumb-speechless from start to finish, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter are given little acting room as Arabella Sours, Theoline Belknapp and Gro Svendsen.
Safely crossing five hundred miles in a mule-pulled iron-barred wooden wagon is no mean feat. As Briggs points out, westering wagon trains will avoid the catatonic or violent lunatics, soldiers rape them, or Indians kill them. For a few out-of-character moments he himself blubbers before the female farmer rescues him from army-deserter claim-jumper justice and dangles three hundred wildcat bank notes for his accompanying the four at-risk ladies.
He an unwashed blaspheming drinker, and she a cleanly, self-controlled and -abnegating spinster, they are Bogart and Hepburn, not on African rivers and lakes but on the high plains grasslands. The outcome, however, is not to be exactly what one expects but is still artistically satisfactory and not inappropriate.
Along with Lithgow’s, there are cameo turns by James Spader and Meryl Streep, he as heartless Irish dandy Aloysius Duffy running a Gothic Revival Victorian hotel out of the Polish Brothers, while she is sweet minister’s wife Altha Carter in a saltbox Methodist parsonage. The two-hour journey, however, belongs to the weak-but-strong sourdough souse homes-man and to the strong-but-weak not-sour homes-woman.
(Released by Roadside Attractions and rated "R" for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity.)