There is no joy in Mudville, just a bleak farming existence on the edge of nowhere.
The Homesman, a film directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, is a study of the insanity produced by homesteading in the Nebraska Territory prior to the Civil War. I really like the entire film, although that is probably a partial product of the madness that I have personally witnessed after practicing criminal law for close to 40 years.
The movie follows a small wagon built as a jail where three pioneer women who have gone completely mad are transported back to civilization in Iowa by an independent, caring woman played by Hillary Swank. In the process, they are joined by Mr. Jones, a crazed loner, and everyone dances on the edge of becoming as emotionally unhinged as the three depraved women.
The three poor, desperate women are played courageously by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter. All of them have suffered profound trauma trying to live in the middle of nowhere, and the only sound you ever hear coming from them are screams. They all have suffered the loss of nearly everything they loved, causing one to throw a nursing child down a small toilet in her outhouse.
Though there are brief appearances by John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld and Meryl Streep, the film belongs to both Mr. Jones and Hillary Swank. Ms. Swank’s character, Mary Bee Cuddy, is a single woman maintaining a meticulous homestead. Her only desire is to become a mother with the aid and comfort of a husband, though every man she meets finds her far too independent and strong-willed to even consider tying a knot.
Jones, whose character is known as George Briggs, joins Ms. Cuddy’s journey after she saved his life. Though he has few goals other than to avoid getting near farming, he gradually forms a bond with his female companion and the three poor lunatics they are transporting that I found repeatedly inspiring.
Though Ms. Swank is living off the laurels flowing from her Oscar-winning performances in both Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), it is Mr. Jones who continues to contribute memorable performances to equally memorable movies. You could do far worse than spending some time watching the following films: Space Cowboys (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007), In the Valley of Elah (2007) and Emperor and Lincoln, both 2012. On top of that, how many other actors in Hollywood wear their success on a wrinkled, facelift free countenance.
One of the best series ever to appear on TV was Lonesome Dove (1989), a film also starring Mr. Jones along with Robert Duvall. Jones’ character here greatly resembles Woodrow Call, the character he played in Dove. Lacking both Woodrow’s discipline and integrity, you know there is a good man lurking inside his weathered exterior.
While life today takes many of us to the brink of insanity, whether we admit it or not, it certainly did for the pioneers who preceded us. This is not an easy film to watch, but it’s impossible to reject its emotional resonance.