“The Homesman,” based on a
novel by Glendon Swarthout, feels like Larry McMurtry’s novels of The Old
people work very hard just to stay alive, and are in constant danger:
not only from random indigenous war parties, but
also from outlaw gangs who enjoy a lot of roaming-around freedom, because
there’s just too much open territory for The Law to cover.
Life is short, difficult, brutal, and often
you die. And
usually prematurely, because of the distinct lack of medical care.
For some of the formerly-genteel
settlers of the
, the hardships are a little too much to endure.
Three pioneer women in one small community suffer
mental breakdowns, from causes ranging from losing her family to diphtheria,
to watching the crops dry up and the livestock starve, to cutting yourself
just to watch the bleeding, these three women are beyond help, at least from
their beleaguered “forty acres and a mule” husbands, who are in no
position to provide assisted living, and are in dire need of replacement
heartier versions who can thrive on the rugged frontier.
The trouble is, what to do with the marginalized
Fortunately, the Church comes to
the rescue. Or
at least, well-meaning Church folk.
There’s a Methodist minister’s wife over the
, who will take them all in, but they have to get them there.
And by covered wagon, that’s going to take
several weeks. At
moral leader of the little prairie community, Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow),
tries to draw lots among the able-bodied men to see who will deliver the needy
women, but the one who draws the black bean refuses to go, which leaves the
stalwart single woman among them, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank).
She happens across a claim-jumper hog-tied on his
horse with his neck tethered to a rope hanging from a large tree.
It seems that they left George Briggs (Tommy Lee
Jones) to die, as soon as his horse moves, but they rode off before actually
witnessing it. He
unashamedly begs her to free him, but first she makes him promise that he will
help her. Of
course, she could rightfully figure that he might not be the kind of man who
keeps his promises, anyway.
But she’s about as desperate for help as he is.
So the unlikely pair winds up taking the three
“loco” women in a covered wagon (which looks more like a jailhouse on
Yeah, you gotta be rough and tough
to survive in this country.
You can go for days without seeing another living
then the ones you do see can give you a lot of trouble.
You have to find feed for your mules and horses,
and somehow locate water.
Most of the time, there’s not enough to eat.
The weather can turn quickly.
And you can suddenly find yourself in more danger
than you can handle. The
journey itself is enough to test the sanity of even the most stable.
And these two aren’t exactly the paradigms of
Tommy Lee Jones knows how to play
the part of the grizzled old roustabout, ornery and profane and independent.
Hilary Swank turns in a finely-tuned and nuanced
performance of the self-reliant, but still needy, frontier settler who’s
probably too determined and willful for her own good.
There are some stark scenes in this film which
will be upsetting to genteel viewers.
People do not always behave well here.
And there’s a commensurate amount of tedium,
portraying a very long journey through open plains.
And yet, there’s a certain authentic feel to
this strange epic, and, for the Christian, a frank portrayal of real people
actually sincerely praying aloud, a sight not often seen in contemporary
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Parish
Associate, Woodhaven Presbyterian Church,