‘The Homesman’: Women heading back East

No home on the mythic Western range for these women

By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy in “The Homesman”; Rating: R, Grade: B+

An extra film festival, especially a European film gala with the prestige of Munich (one of the international Sister Cities of Cincinnati), affords a Midwestern critic like myself the opportunity to sample fare beyond the high-profile awards season teasers that populate an over-crowded showcase like Toronto, which is an all-work affair. Rarely during my annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) sojourn can I simply indulge in a screening or two, with personal enjoyment driving the selection, so the chance to attend Munich’s full ten-day festival was a slice of cinematic heaven on Earth.

Of course, the big-ticket items are never completely off the radar, which was why “The Homesman,” the new release from Tommy Lee Jones, attracted solid buzz, fresh off its premiere at Cannes. Jones, serving as co-writer, director and co-star, offered up what on the surface appeared to be a revisionist Western tale about the lives of women struggling (and ultimately failing) to survive the harsh, drifting plains. But Jones, working from a novel by Glendon Swarthout, shows us a complementary take on the West that, thankfully, embraces a female perspective.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is the near-perfect combination of East and West it would take to conquer the unforgiving realities of frontier life. An educated and fiercely independent homesteader, Cuddy is knowledgeable and cultured but just as at ease working the land. Her downfall, it would seem, is being too refined and too rugged at the same time. There is a brittleness to her refinement that comes across as off-putting to her neighbors and the larger community, and she suffers under the burden of a plainness of appearance that contemporary viewers might find incongruent with the times, although it must be acknowledged that some basic degree of personal attractiveness is a biological imperative.

Sadly, this is Cuddy’s key deficiency.

So, when her community is faced with the pressing need to transport a collection of mal-adjusted women (wives and mothers ill-prepared for the hardships of less civilized living), Cuddy steps up and accepts the assignment. Truth be told, her decision shames many of the townspeople because such duties should not fall to a woman, even one as suited for the task as Cuddy. She will, of course, be handsomely rewarded (as any “homesman” would) and, in her mind, this might be her last chance to convince one of the available men of the community of her status as a worthy mate (again, mainly thanks to her acquired holdings moreso than her desirability).

The trip requires Cuddy to shepherd a group of women who must be chained and locked away, much like dangerous prisoners, and taxes Cuddy as much as it would any single caretaker. Cuddy stumbles across Briggs (Jones), dangling from a noose with merely the toehold keeping him alive, and enlists his aid. Less dangerous, to her mind, than the women and the elements (both nature and the ruthless human predators lurking), Briggs is only in it for the second chance at freedom and the money Cuddy has offered for his services. Before long though, Cuddy attempts to proposition Briggs, brazenly sacrificing her self-esteem, gaining a moment of sexual satisfaction as a result of pity.

The journey, you might imagine, matters less than the character study Jones has created here, and in that sense, “The Homesman” truly does achieve its quiet goal of uprooting our expectations. The film is not interested in proving that the West was won through blazing gunfights between white hats and black hearts. There is an argument to be made that the West was never “won” at all. What matters is that there are untold stories from that day and age, and “The Homesman” is one of the forgotten gospels that Jones has unearthed for us. We should lend our eyes and ears to this telling.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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