THE HOMESMAN B-
USA France (122 mi) 2014 ‘Scope d: Tommie Lee Jones Official Facebook
A film weighed down by the seriousness of its own efforts, an old-fashioned western that dramatizes the emptiness of the frontier landscape and the seeming impossibility of surviving under the brutally harsh conditions of the American West, especially for women. While the feminist bent is well-intentioned, and the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is ravishing throughout, the film is simply too downbeat for its own good, always carrying an extra load of unnecessary baggage inherited from the demands of such an inhospitable storyline. Never allowing the audience in, the film instead forces the viewer into miserably unhappy territory and then leaves them there with no way out, a Sartrian existential No Exit debacle, becoming one of the gloomier and most depressing films seen this year, literally a portrait of hell on earth. Leading us through this psychological world of endless suffering is Hillary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy, a frontierswoman living alone on the prairie, beholden to no one, seemingly a free spirit, yet she carries the burden of moral righteousness around her shoulders like an insufferable weight, a Florence Nightingale of social reform, a predecessor to the Women's Christian Temperance Union, yet she is stuck in the Nebraska Territory of the 1820’s and 30’s, an era rarely depicted in motion pictures as there’s nothing exotic or romanticized about the bleakness of the times, where every day is living and dying through the dreariness of a great depression. Because of her unattached social status as the town spinster, Mary Bee is handed (by the church) the thankless task of transporting three crazy women on a long and arduous journey across the desolate Territory back to the civilization of Iowa where they can be handed over to a Methodist Church that is willing to care for them.
These women have all been driven into insanity by the harshness of the times and the callous indifference of their husbands, a reference right out of John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (1956), removing the racist angle of being abducted white women raised by Indians and therefore rejected by the moral sanctity of white civilization. Here 19-year old Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer, daughter of Meryl Streep) has lost three children to diphtheria, fiercely clutching to a rag doll (also in Ford) in a near catatonic state, while Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) threw her newborn into the outhouse after the family farm failed, and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) suffers from delusions of evil, who is so violent to herself or others that she needs to continuously be tied up. The idea of Mary Bee, a straight-laced, strong, and indomitable woman transporting these women alone across such a barren wasteland is equally crazy in the eyes of the wary townsfolk, as few believe she will succeed, including her town minister (John Lithgow) who instead offers his prayers. As she rounds up her cargo one by one, placing them inside a locked wooden box with iron guarded windows, like a mobile prison on wheels, she happens upon a miserable wretch in an even more precarious position than her own, a man tied to a tree with a noose around his neck while sitting, hands tied behind him, on a horse, whose slightest movement suggests his unfortunate end is near. He is none other than George Briggs (Tommie Lee Jones), a morally dubious, contemptible lowlife drifter who happens to be a claim jumper, stealing another man’s property while he’s gone back East “to find himself a wife.” Taking advantage of his desperate position, namely having no other options, she makes him promise to help her throughout her long and difficult journey. While he’s something of an ornery cuss who doesn’t like what he bargained for, in this mythic American West, a man doesn’t go back on his word.
If this film does anything, it provides a visual depiction of flatness as an unforgiving plain that stretches to an endless horizon, offering little in the way of hope or vegetation, where the idea of surviving out in this arid wilderness seems remote. Unlike Kelly Reichardt’s Meek's Cutoff (2010), the film is not about the minutia of daily survival, or a claustrophobic world closing in, but more closely resembles Jones’s earlier effort THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA (2005), shot on the director’s own property, another film about transporting human cargo across uncivilized territory, where the beauty of the film is the journey, set against desert landscapes with only traces of water, where sheer fortitude is the only thing that gets them through. Unfortunately, this film has a weary feeling of aimlessness about it, missing the taut direction of his earlier effort. While there are dangerous encounters along the way, not to mention the lingering possibility of starvation or Indian attack, Briggs offers some degree of frontier wisdom along with his eccentric behavior, obstinate and stubborn in his steadfast refusal to do any more than absolutely necessary, forcing Mary Bee to carry the load, where tending to the deteriorating minds of the three women is a loathsome proposition, a burden she’s forced to endure alone. While she’s a model of consistency and moral piety, Mary Bee begins to suffer from outright loneliness, where the human condition surrounding her is a sorry state, offering no respite from the enveloping purgatory that is her plight. As fate would have it, she is crushed under the weight of her own good intentions, a mythological Icarus flying too close to the sun.
While Briggs has every intention to abandon those women, offering their cruel fates to the winds, he has a change of conscience, feeling obligated to live up to Mary Bee’s sheer persistence, if only through stubborn resolve. While it’s possible they all perished out in the wilderness, as out of death comes the surreal, where the rest of the journey has the feel of a dream, where much like an apparition or a mirage, Briggs happens upon a newly constructed, freshly painted hotel out in the middle of nowhere, but they refuse food or lodging to such depraved souls as they are preparing for an evening banquet for wealthy entrepreneurs who will develop a civilized town where emptiness currently sits. This kind of indifference of the wealthy is not a stranger to the impoverished, but after witnessing this harrowing ordeal, it’s beneath contempt. Nonetheless, life goes on, and Briggs survives only in the manner that he’s accustomed to, namely violating all known ethical conduct, eventually crossing the Missouri River into what resembles the land of Oz — Iowa, which may as well be heaven, a perfectly manicured and pristine community where everything is neatly in place, handing over his tainted ladies (along with letters of family contacts) to the wife of the Methodist minister, none other than Meryl Streep, whose astonishment at their arrival melts into open generosity, where in this depiction, human kindness is a surreal sign of a civilized future, leaving Briggs an outcast, like Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS, and like Custer’s last stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn where the Indians cut his eyes out, unable to see the spirit world, left to blindly wander lost in an inhospitable neverland for eternity.