Anyone who played Oregon Trail in elementary school knows that life on the American frontier was no walk in the park. The Homesman takes a recognizable, albeit more brutal look at life on the plains through the eyes of four frontierswomen. The story opens on Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a no-nonsense, single thirty-something with two land claims and a viable-ish farming business. But Cuddy’s strong will is quickly thrown into sharp relief by three women who haven’t fared as well—Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) lost three children; Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) killed her daughter in search of a son; and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) appears to be possessed by the devil himself. Driven batty by their respective predicaments, the local preacher decides they best be taken back east to civilized hospice care; when none of the townsmen step up to escort them, Cuddy decides to lead the five-week expedition herself. Not long into their journey, the foursome falls upon a scoundrel by the name of Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), who Cuddy recruits as her assistant.
Like the countless westerns that came before it, The Homesman is a fierce tale about survival in a world that barely seems worth surviving. As director, writer, and costar, Jones beautifully conveys this struggle with Briggs’s introduction, which finds Cuddy freeing the pitiful old man from his hanging post as he crumbles into sobs, begging for a second chance at a life that seems excruciating at best.
Still, Jones’s biggest triumph here is in the restraint he portrays. Rather than playing Briggs’s callousness up, he sits back and lets the women take the lead. Swank is masterful as the hard-as-nails Cuddy, who, despite her independence, awkwardly reminds us that’s she’s still in search of a husband. Meanwhile, Gummer, Otto, and Richter carry a sizable weight of the film with not much more than a few shrieking screams and hollow stares. When the whole thing takes a hard left toward the beginning of its final act, Jones works wonders and shines a glaring light on the severity of this subject matter.
In fact, the most troubling part of Homesman comes with its cameos from the likes of John Lithgow at the start and James Spader, Meryl Streep, and Hailee Steinfeld at its close. One immediately gets the sense that all four characters were crucial players in the Glendon Swarthout novel that serves as source material. Sadly, here they’re reduced to fleeting bits that roll through scenes a lot like tumbleweeds on the plain.