A homesman is the man in charge of taking immigrants back home. And after a really harsh winter filled with loss, three women in a small midwestern community lose their minds and somebody’s got to bring them all the way to a church caring for the mentally ill in Iowa. None of their husbands is up to the task, so Hilary Swank, spinster extraordinaire, steps up to the plate.
She’s a former New York school teacher who now farms her plot as well as any man – better, I’d say, because she seems to be the most prosperous person in this small village. This, of course, has made her seem “bossy”, and none of the hasty marriage proposals she inflicts on any breathing man within a 50 mile radius are accepted. She’s a lonely, desperate woman.
Which is the only explanation for her taking on Tommy Lee Jones, who she saves from being hanged when he’s discovered using someone else’s land. Yup, these are super harsh conditions out in the west. She suggests that he join her on her months-long journey, and he agrees reluctantly when money is offered.
The journey is awful enough to make someone return to dead kids and repeated rape, if only those poor women were still verbal or lucid enough to choose. But they press on, determined to reunite Meryl Streep with her daughter (Meryl plays the minister’s wife at the church; her daughter plays one of the afflicted women).
This movie is really successful at showing us just how fucking cruel life was for women on the western front. They could be taken far from home, submitted to anything at the will of their husbands, who could then abandon them if and when they chose. Even Hilary Swank, who seems like an accomplished, secure catch, is constantly rejected because who needs a hard-working woman with an independent spirit when you can just go carry off an immigrant woman who can’t even say no in your language? I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a feminist western, but it sure does show the depressingly bleak terms for women of the time. They were damned either way.
Tommy Lee directs and he paints a brutal picture – opening scenes of the women suffering loss after loss interspersed with Swank’s back-breaking work convince us that there is nothing appealing about this life. Tommy Lee is initially a comic figure, and I was glad that we saw a little character growth because I couldn’t have tolerated his snivelling for an entire movie. The contrast between his character and Swank’s – the sinner and the saint – is what makes this watchable. Jones is wise enough to sit back a little and let her shine. He keeps things looking tidy but the cinematography at times is pretty striking. The land can be barren, but they play around with different perspectives that gives the vast emptiness different meanings.
This movie is a little off-kilter, a little conventional. The ending didn’t provide anything near the resolution I felt I deserved after sitting through such persistent abasement, but I was still satisfied on the whole, and a little surprised at that, having feared and assumed much worse.