For more than an hour, The Homesman is one of the best-told films I can remember. It is directed by, and starring, Tommy Lee Jones, based on a screenplay co-written by him. The secret prime mover, however, is a woman named Mary Bee Cuddy, played to perfection by Hilary Swank. Miss Cuddy, unmarried, devout and outspoken, lives on her own farm on the Nebraska Territory. The year is 1837, and this is the frontier. If you go West, you will find disease, hunger, isolation and hostile Indians. There is nothing but flat grassland as far as the eye can see. No villages, just huddled groups of little colorful houses crouching under an overwhelming sky.
Cuddy accepts the job of escorting three traumatised wives back east to Iowa (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) because it’s the right thing to do. Their respective stories are harrowing in their own right, and Jones finds the right pictures to show us. The two-month journey ahead of them might be just as dangerous as their miserable frontier lives. Miss Cuddy knows that and enrols the help of a man sitting on his horse, a noose around his neck. This is George Briggs (Jones), who has lived in a house that, to him, seemed empty, but his neighbours claim that the man living in that house has gone East to find a wife. Cuddy cuts him down on condition that he helps her reach the border to Iowa. He agrees.
These are two fascinating performances. Both have their own mind, but whereas Gribbs is brutally honest and outspoken, Cuddy wraps her stark truths and iron will in polite tactics. And then there is that scene that jerks the movie around so much that it almost breaks down. Spoilers ahead: One night, over a campfire, Miss Cuddy proposes marriage to Gribbs. He refuses her. They quarrel, and she leaves, only to come back naked and slip underneath Gribbs’ bearskin. They make love, then she leaves again. The next morning, he finds her hanging from a tree. I still don’t understand that scene. Maybe she was achingly lonely. Maybe she felt slighted by the fact that, at the very beginning of the film, she proposes marriage to the man in whose hut Gribbs lives in, a man who refused Cuddy’s offer, but instead went all the way back East to find a wife. There is nothing, however, that would hint at suicide in Mary Bee Cuddy’s behaviour. And why sleep with a man who sends her away? It’s a puzzling plot point, and it’s at least partly there for shock value. The movie’s secret is that everyone in it is at least slightly insane, but suicide? That doesn’t work at all for me.
The movie never really recovers from losing her. Gribbs goes on taking care of the three women and delivers them to Iowa. There is a cruel irony in the thought that, if Cuddy had been convinced that Gribbs wouldn’t be able or willing to deliver the women, she hadn’t hanged herself. There is a scene where Gribbs burns down a hotel in order to get something to eat for the women and himself. It’s a bold and risky scene, but Cuddy’s absence tinges every moment of the rest of the film. In that sense, The Homesman is a misnomer, even if it is a man who brings home those women.