When we think of the "revisionist Western" genre, the implication is usually one of Peckinpah-esque ultraviolence or Dead Man artiness. Tommy Lee Jones' unexpectedly devastating The Homesman, while hardly lacking for flashes of brutal violence or moments of equally brutal introspection, takes a slightly different approach to its revisionist vision of the Old West. It is a film about the Western landscape as a psychological nightmare, and in its deepest and darkest moments, The Homesman questions how insanity should be defined in a world as savage and lonely as the one it depicts.
However, this is also a full entertainment, filled with rich and profoundly moving performances, bawdy humor, powerful visuals, and a genuine empathy for the forgotten heroes of history. But Jones, who also adapted the Glendon Swarthout novel along with screenwriters Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, only leads the viewer down comforting alleys in order to ambush them with ugly truths. The film is structured in a manner that is daring but not showy, allowing flashbacks and visions to slash into the narrative without showing their seams. All the beauty and promise of the vast Western landscapes has become a prison for these characters, an unconquerable world of desolation and death.
The Homesman is the second film directed by the Oscar-winning actor Jones — his directorial debut was 2005's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, another breed of revisionist Western — but here he displays the wisdom and confidence of a battle-scarred veteran. Jones, who frequently seems bored and unchallenged when he is acting in Hollywood dreck, also stars in The Homesman, and he gives his best performance in years. He also gets brilliant work from Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy, a lonely spinster working her own plot of land in the barren Nebraska Territory, described by an elderly friend as "a better man than any man in these parts," but dismissed by potential suitors as "plain and bossy."
As the film opens, Mary is attempting to rope one of the local oafs into marriage, proposing a union of "land, animals, implements, lives" with all the passion of a business contract. He rejects her in order to find a bride back east, but like many settlers unprepared for the bleak and meager life on the range, he ends up deserting his homestead altogether. In fact, a mental fatigue and psychological sickness seems to have infected the entire populace, especially the town's women.
In short order, three of the farmer's wives go insane — a teenage girl who lost numerous babies goes catatonic; a viciously oppressed wife has visions of her dead mother; and in the film's most disturbing moment, a mother chucks her newborn baby into the bottom of an outhouse.
A decision is made to escort the women to Missouri, so that they may then be returned to their families back east. When the women's husbands all prove unwilling or unable to make the journey, Mary heroically volunteers for the thankless and dangerous task. She comes across Jones, left for dead by the town fathers after he is found squatting on a deserted homestead, and saves his life in exchange for his help on the long journey. Along the way, his loutish behavior and cynical worldview — he quit everything that he ever started, including the Army and his own pioneer family — clashes with her uptight and brittle nature.
That may sound like the set-up for a Two Mules for Sister Sara-style, lightweight goof, and those mismatched-partners clichés are certainly present in the opening half, but The Homesman has much greater ambitions. The proximity to the mad women, and to the savagery of the wilderness, also begins to affect Mary's sanity, which may have been drastically frayed before the journey even began. As they travel farther away from the imaginary values of civilization, Mary's compassion comes to look like a form of insanity. Meanwhile, her matrimonial longings seem less mercenary and more like a desperate cry for tenderness and human connection in a world where no one is your friend, and where home is your own personal prison.