Somewhere in Nebraska on the distant edge of the American frontier, the town of Loup – really more a collection of mud-brick settlements with a unifying church than a town proper – struggles to carve a little bit of civilization out of the prairie. It’s a hard life and it’s taking its toll on the town’s inhabitants, particularly three wives (Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter and Grace Gummer) who have been driven mad in the struggle.
A man is chosen by lot to return the women to their families on the other side of the Mississippi, but he refuses the journey which would take a month or more by wagon. Stronger and more determined than any of the men around her, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers. She’s a 30-something woman who has been a bit more successful at growing her farm than in finding a mate to share it with. After rescuing him from the noose of vigilantes, Mary Bee recruits a grizzled squatter named George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) to accompany her on the ride with the promise of $300 when they reach the other end.
Throughout, Jones wrangles a curious mix of tones veering surprisingly smoothly from drama, to odd humor to an almost hallucinatory feeling of apocalyptic doom. Indeed, the film’s climax is almost an unleashing of the fires of hell. Somehow it all works and manages to resolve itself in a way that is both sweet and sad and moving.
Swank and Jones are both terrific. The show belongs entirely to Swank at first, but she slowly makes way for Jones who can steal a scene with a simple glance. Even after Jones takes the reigns however, Swank’s deeply felt personification lingers and continues to shape the story. They make an unexpectedly great team.
The Meredith Boswell’s period production design and Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography make this non-studio production look more expensive than it probably was while Marco Beltrami’s score nicely ties the whole thing together.
Some recognizable names fill out a number of supporting bit parts including John Lithgow, William Fichtner, Tim Blake Nelson, Jesse Plemons, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld and Meryl Streep.
The Homesman might ultimate be a little too unique and strange to really cross over to a mass audience or to ever get any awards traction, but it’s deserving of both.