Tommy Lee Jones’s character, in the TV series “Lonesome Dove,” schleps his friend’s corpse (played by Robert Duvall) in a makeshift, drag-able coffin, behind his horse for months, to honor his friend’s burial request, even though it meant riding hundreds of miles through dangerous Wild West territory. He promised he’d do it.
In the Jones-directed “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” his character therein also takes a journey to bury someone because he promised to.
In “The Homesman,” Jones’s 2014 directorial effort, his character carts three insane women across Nebraska in a covered wagon. Take a wild guess why.
That’s a fair portion of Tommy Lee’s life dedicated to telling stories about schlepping and carting various types of incapacitated people long distances, through the Wild West, because he promised to.
Come to think of it, Tommy Lee’s character in “The Fugitive,” U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, is also man of his word, by any means necessary.
What’s significant about that particular motif? We’ll come back to it.
Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a 31-year-old single woman living in 1800s’ Nebraska. She does okay for herself, tilling her own land. It makes for an arresting tableau: plowshare, oxen, billowing skirt, bonnet. Frontierswomen were awesome.
She can’t catch a break husband-wise, though. Nobody wants her because she’s “plain as an old tin pail. And bossy.” She’s pretty desperate. She has a man over to dinner and immediately proposes to him. He’s not having it. We get the sense she’s done this before. Well, the community respects her anyhow.
But this casting is immediately problematic. A-list Hollywood knockout Hilary Swank and “old tin pail” shouldn’t exist in the same sentence, regardless of the lengths the lighting designer went toward uglifying her.
It’s an interesting thing, casting. If you go with character actresses like Jane Adams or Kathy Bates who’d be more believable in the role, will you get the same star power attraction? I think more realistic casting would have helped the story.
Anyway, three young women in Mary’s community lose their minds to what was euphemistically known as “prairie madness,” but which in these instances specifically involved unabated grief due to infanticide via outhouse toilet, spousal rape, diphtheria, and self-mutilation by sewing needle.
Severe agoraphobia brought on by way too much sky, loneliness, fear of murderous tribes, spousal abuse, along with the inherent prairie hardships of drought, blizzards, locusts, rattlesnakes, black widows, and so on, blew a lot of women’s minds out, back in the day.
The local priest (John Lithgow) arranges to have the women transported to a parsonage in Iowa. Mary Bee volunteers to take them, since these women’s husbands constitute a loser-collective.
Meanwhile, army deserter and claim jumper George Briggs (Jones) gets somewhat hilariously dynamited out of his stolen house, and horse-lynched. That’s where they tie the noose around your neck to a tree, tie your hands, tie you to your horse, and then your horse eventually gets hungry and wanders off from the hanging-tree.
Mary Bee happens by before George’s horse gets a hankering for some fresh grass, and cuts him loose under the condition that he accompany her and her rolling loony-bin, to Iowa.
Off they go, with a flapping clothesline strung between a shovel and an axe attached to the roof of the covered wagon, and inside, there is much wailing, gnashing of teeth, and headbanging. A veritable cargo of madness. Talk about your long, strange trips.
Mostly, though, it’s a tedious journey of tremendous hardship, through endless burnt sienna, raw umber, and muted yellow ochre flatlands.
Toward the end, they discover a little girl’s desecrated grave, which Mary insists on restoring, and which results in her getting separated from the group, lost, freezing, and attempting to eat frozen prairie grass.
She eventually catches up with George and the wagon, but the ordeal has shattered something in her. After one last plea to George for the comfort of companionship (which he rejects), we bear witness to the hellhounds on her lonely trail closing in.
With all the women in this movie, you’d imagine “The Homesman” might be a sort of feminist Western, but it’s definitely not. Everyone knows pioneer women were tough as nails, but the movie is more about the fact that no matter how hard frontier folks were, nature was considerably harder. Here’s a quick rundown of life in Nebraska at that time:
- In 1854, President Franklin Pierce officially opened Nebraska Territory to whites. By 1862, you could pay $10 and get yourself 160 acres of land. This was very inviting. Most people didn’t realize what they were getting themselves into.
- Pioneer life was rough—you might have had to live in a man-made cave called a “dug-out” with an old blanket for a door.
- Prairie fires were serious business; they destroyed crops, buildings, and towns.
- Native-American tribes included the Oto, Pawnee, Dakota, Iowa, Cheyenne, Ponca, and Omaha, and none of them were particularly happy about settlers snatching choice parcels of their land for ten dollars a pop. In fact, some tribes were downright hostile.
- After the Civil War, many former slaves settled in central and western Nebraska. It’s quite conceivable that this particular demographic might have been similarly inclined to hostility.
- Thousands of settlers crossed Nebraska, en route to Oregon and California. Some stayed and operated truck stop-like “road ranches” along the covered wagon trails. Most were abandoned when the railroads came. This could not have been an easy way to make a living.
- Blizzards, drought, and locust plagues were major problems. Plenty of pioneers got discouraged and quit Nebraska.
But “The Homesman” is not really about the incredible harshness of pioneer life in the West. It’s about Tommy Lee’s ongoing homage to keeping one’s word. Diane Lane’s character in “Lonesome Dove” calls into question the hyper-masculine, unbending aspect of it, that easily loses sight of reality and jeopardizes human (often feminine) needs in the here and now, due to cocked-up notions of honor. That would appear to be addressed here as well. George is a scoundrel, a misfit, and a deserter, but he’s also a manly man, and when he says he’s going to do something, by golly, he does what the heck he said he’d do.
Setting out on journeys with do-or-die, all-or-none, male versions of keeping one’s word is admirable, if arguably not always the best entertainment choice. Tommy Lee’s built his career on it. This one’s got some dark humor, and it can be good to get perspective on just how nice we have it today, but make sure you’re in the mood for a getting a few laughs by way of a large helping of grim suffering.
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, Hailee Steinfeld, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, Mirando Otto, Grace Gummer
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 14, 2014
2.5 stars out of 5