Two heroic characters resonate poignantly through “The Homesman.”
Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones directed the drama, set in the Nebraska Territories in 1855, and co-wrote the screenplay, which is based on the 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout.
Doing triple duty for “The Homesman,” Jones also co-stars in the prairie saga with Oscar-winner Hilary Swank. The actress’ empathy-rousing performance is difficult to shake. The supporting cast features major talent, too — Meryl Streep, Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”), John Lithgow, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson — in small roles.
Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy is a single, strong, straight-shooting, frank woman who’s made a successful go at homesteading on the prairie. George Brigg is a drifter of questionable character. Jones directs himself in the role of a rascal who unwittingly steps onto a finer path.
Mary Bee recruits Briggs for a merciful mission. He’s not an obvious choice, but her options in the Nebraska Territories are limited. A smart, practical woman, Mary Bee convinces the normally shiftless Briggs that a partnership with her will be worth his while.
Brave Mary Bee accepts the responsibility of rescuing three women who, affected by the hard life on the frontier, have fallen into madness. She will transport the unfortunates east to Iowa, where a church has agreed to care for them.
Swank gives Mary Bee all the focus and grit the role needs. Moviegoers have seen such determination from the actress before, especially in her Oscar-winning work in “Million Dollar Baby” and “Boys Don’t Cry.”
The local minister, the Rev. Alfred Dowd (Lithgow), mentions the three women who’ve lost their minds to Mary Bee during a visit to her homestead.
“There’s been some trouble amongst the women hereabouts,” he says. Mary already has heard about it. She changes the subject. She’s going to buy a melodeon, a keyboard instrument related to the organ.
“I can’t live without real music much longer,” she tells the pastor. It’s a rare display of vulnerability from Mary Bee. Capable as she is and strong in the face of disappointments, she’s not unfeeling.
Another example of Mary Bee’s vulnerability comes after she accepts the job of saving the madwomen. She leaves a meeting led by the Rev. Dowd at the local church abruptly. Alone outside, Mary Bee stares at the vast prairie as the magnitude of the difficult journey ahead falls on her small frame.
But no one is better suited to the task. As the local fellow from whom Mary Bee acquires a wagon to haul the women in says: “You are as good a man as any man hereabouts.”
No one is likely to say the same about Jones’ Briggs. He’s a selfish man with a history of not honoring commitments. Briggs is a colorful character, a role Jones probably couldn’t resist playing, despite being the film’s director.
Regardless of the frontier setting of “The Homesman,” Jones, the director and screenwriter, didn’t think of the film as a Western.
Horses, wagons, occasional Indians and villainous white settlers don’t stop “The Homesman” from transcending the Western tag. In ways both simple and deep, it’s a stark, tender, heartrending, universal tale.