MPAA Rating: R
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
There were a plethora of hardships facing the pioneers and settlers of the American West during the 1850s. Harsh living conditions stemming from long, cold winters bearing little more than isolation, disease and violent, forceful winds offset by blazing hot summers on the seemingly infinite flatness of the Plains, a windblown expanse of vast nothingness drove many to depression, violence, suicide and/or madness.
Such is the case in the sophomore film, The Homesman, from writer/director Tommy Lee Jones; adapted from a Glendon Swarthout novel of the same name, The Homesman depicts the unrelenting harshness of the Great Plains in the 1850s, especially those facing the women of the era as three wives develop Prairie madness and need to be escorted back East to a sanitarium. The job inevitably lands at the feet of Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a strong, resourceful woman that appears to be one of the few thriving in the Nebraska territory.
The Homesman introduces the viewer to the sprawling blankness of the plains through a series of landscape frames, one after another of dirt fields and blue skies differing almost imperceptibly in its content before segueing into disjointed episodes of character introduction.
Jones, along with editor Roberto Silvi, juxtaposes the picturesque idyll of Cuddy’s fruitful existence by interspersing the nightmarish lives of the three women struggling through barren winters, diphtheria and abusive husbands throughout while the Marco Beltrami score shifts perfectly between the two worlds – sweeping, grandiose strings for Cuddy morph into a discordant cacophony soundtracking the swell of psychosis. The disturbing imagery of the insanity-laden women continues to be sprinkled throughout the film during the trip back east. Although the closer the group gets to civilization and verdant landscapes, the less the flashback sequences are incorporated.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto presents these happenings through delicate mix of wide-angle landscape shots and claustrophobic close-ups, all meticulously composed especially the staging of the field-set sequences wherein the characters appear to be living in a void further stressing the character’s suffocating isolation.
All of these aspects, especially the fact that everyone brings their A game, elevate The Homesman from the standard, straight-forward story it clearly is to a perfectly-constructed period piece executed almost flawlessly. Unfortunately towards the end, the film begins to meander into melodrama and sentimentality flatly punctuating a string of tonal shifts, a subsequent result of a gut-punching plot turn, that seems unnecessarily rushed. The disappointing stumble down the stretch is easy to forgive though.