Plain Crazy
By Nick Pinkerton

The Homesman
Dir. Tommy Lee Jones, U.S., Roadside Attractions

The first thing that you should know before watching Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman is that it operates under the fundamental assumption that everyone who took part in the settling of the American West was, by almost any contemporary standard, insane. Some were perhaps already mad before they lit out for the frontier, others went mad because of what they lived through once they’d arrived. Some went stark-raving and certifiable for the loony bin, while others managed their lunacy quietly, put it to work for them, perhaps even rising to the position of prominent citizens one day with its assistance, but they were all of them, without exception, bats. The second thing you should know is that this madness is not, absolutely, thought of as a bad thing in the film—that there is, in the final reckoning, even something a little defiant, a little triumphal in it. It’s an indivisible possession, a good-luck charm, a means for getting through the days without end.

The Homesman is based on a 1988 novel by the late Glendon Swarthout—I have not read it, nor indeed have I read any of Swarthout’s works, but I understand that they’ve provided the basis for such disparate American films as Henry Levin’s spring break romp Where the Boys Are (1960) and Don Siegel’s autumnal John Wayne vehicle The Shootist (1976), which certainly suggests a unique insight into our national psyche. At one point Paul Newman had been attached to star in a film of The Homesman, and one imagines he might have cast himself opposite Joanne Woodward, as principal characters George Briggs and Mary Bee Cuddy, an ornery claim-jumper and a New York State–born spinster landowner who are thrown together on a mission to transfer a freight of three madwomen across the Nebraska Territory, taking them to asylum back East.

This most American of projects would finally, improbably, be financed by Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp, with Jones and Nebraska-born Hilary Swank as Briggs and Cuddy. Swank’s Mary Bee is introduced setting down her plow so that she can whip up a fried chicken dinner and set an immaculate table for an anticipated guest, a neighboring farmer who snores through her “piano” recital—she sings “Rosalie, the Prairie Flower” while fingering the notes of a sewn keyboard—then indelicately rejects her pragmatic proposition of marriage for the reason that she’s no prairie flower herself: “Too bossy and too damn plain.” Of course Swank is nothing like the gargoylish bluestocking spinster that the script refers to, but she is rangy and raw, and here has assumed a hard pioneer face set with, per Emily Dickinson, “eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves.”

Almost as soon as the limpingly elegiac opening credits have passed, Jones—whose filmmaking to date has proven every bit as eccentric as Dickinson’s punctuation—fairly buffets the viewer with images of everyday horrors on the high plains, scenes that come out of nowhere and are just as quickly gone. A woman screeching in some Scandinavian tongue falls to hysterics as she is forced to drag her mother’s corpse outside on a freezing winter night. Another woman weeps over three child-sized bundles laid out all in a row in a barn; we’ll later learn she lost her entire brood to diphtheria. Still another woman carries a noisy, purplish newborn to the outhouse, where she calmly disposes of it in the privy pit. These scenes, and others just as terrible, come at the viewer in a flurry—without knowledge of who these women are or where and when these events are meant to be taking place, their significance to Mary Bee’s story as yet unclear, all that comes across definitely is an impression of general dread. Their blurred passage gives these vignettes the aspect of whispered rumors passed along prairie outposts, things averred to in polite euphemism. “When it comes to crazy,” Mary Bee says of folks on the plains, “they stay hushed up.”

The women are, respectively, Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter), Arabella (Grace Gummer), and Theoline (Miranda Otto). Gro and Theoline are varying degrees of feral, Gro seemingly impervious to pain—she sizzles her palm over an open flame and curiously prods her naked body with a sewing needle, as though it’s an object foreign to her. Arabella is all but comatose, save if someone trifles with the homemade dolly that she tightly clings to at all times. Because these women have snapped and can do nothing practical, they have become a liability to a community that can only just take care of itself, and so the Methodist minister (John Lithgow), the nearest thing there is to a local authority, has decided that they should be packed into a reinforced frame wagon and taken on a hard and dangerous overland journey, to the far bank of the Missouri River and the relative civilization of Hebron, Iowa. The landowning male congregants draw lots for the duty but, a shirking and shiftless lot, they’re relieved when Mary Bee volunteers herself, as she’s relieved when, after rescuing Briggs from a hangman’s noose, she secures his promise to help her in her mission and his extra gun.

Scratching his asshole through his long johns and uncouthly slurping Mary Bee’s coffee while cursing up a storm in her parlor, Jones is more grizzled rodeo clown than cavalry when he rides into The Homesman, which has up to this point been a litany of barbarous acts. This isn’t the last abrupt tonal shift that the movie will make, the most significant of these being a veering change of narrative course that elevates Briggs from a Walter Brennan-esque second banana coot who discursively shuffles in and out of the spotlight to its principal identification character. Suffice it to say that, like Jones’s 2005 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, The Homesman eventually becomes a movie about traveling with a freight of death, although here the burden is somewhat less literal.

It’s unclear exactly when the events depicted are meant to be taking place, but the words “Nebraska Territory,” the side-whiskers and muzzle-loading pistols, the presence of still-to-be-feared Pawnee war parties, and the sight of black chattel wearing chains on the Missouri banks—presumably victims of the Fugitive Slave Act—place the film in the years immediately before the Civil War, a period sadly underserviced by the classic Western, which principally concentrates on the two decades after. (Howard Hawks’s 1952 The Big Sky, a trip up the Missouri in the days of buckskin some thirty years before Antietam, is one notable exception.)

These are the hard years before the West was won—or put into a submission hold—and in this pitiless environment any concession to the standards of civilization is a dangerous weakness. When the wagon party comes upon the grave of a child, its makeshift headboard tombstone toppled and its contents ransacked by either wolves, Indians, or both, Mary Bee insists on staying there until it’s set straight, while unsentimental Briggs insists just as firmly on pressing on ahead. Separated from her party and lost on the plains without supplies, Mary Bee is reduced to eating grass like mad Nebuchadnezzar before finally finding her way back. When Briggs chides her with his every-man-for-himself doctrine—“That’s all there is, there ain’t no more”—it suggests Gene Evans’s Sgt. Zack in Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, advising against collecting the dog tags from a dead soldier, lest he be booby-trapped. Survivalism, however, is only another, useful species of mania. Briggs, the film’s “voice of reason,” is himself a deserter from Company C of the 1st U.S. dragoons at Ft. Leavenworth, who remembers with a faraway look visiting a holocaust on a Kiowa village—“a fine job of work”—and who later, in response to a social slight, shows that he hasn’t lost his knack for mass murder.

Jones is not an eye-popping visual stylist, tending instead toward undressy, matter-of-fact presentation, aided in his subdued approach by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, whose last Western was Brokeback Mountain. Such a laconic perspective serves this Old West atrocity exhibition—you don’t get the sense of someone showing you awful things with naughty relish, but of seeing these things because they happen to be there and happen to be important to the story being told. (Even the abovementioned turning-point narrative shift is handled with what amounts to muted surprise and a heavy sigh of necessary adjustment.) The wagon’s journey from West to East—Manifest Destiny in reverse—coincides with a change from pale, drained, frost-rimed winter to blooming spring, but the terrain becomes no more welcoming with the increased presence of white men. There is a surreal layover at a new luxury hotel, sideboards groaning with all things piping hot and flaky and glazed, that stands in the middle of the “city” of Fairfield—a network of white posts and street signs indicating where thoroughfares and property lines will someday be. In Hebron, Briggs finds there are enough men with pretensions of gentility to get together a poker game with a $50 buy in, but even with a new suit of clothes he doesn’t cut muster. Mission accomplished, arrived among the blessings of civilization, Briggs finds himself uneasy and without a place. The films ends as he begins his return journey to the West, re-crossing the Missouri in the ferry he came in on, at the sloppy end of a whiskey spree. When last we see Briggs, he’s just launched into a song and a lurching, drunken jig, accompanied by a couple of pickers who happen to be aboard the ferry, raising hell and waking up the decent people of Hebron who are trying to sleep.

This final image seems definitely intended to evoke one of the river scenes of the American painter George Caleb Bingham, particularly his 1846 Jolly Flatboatmen, which depicts just such an impromptu song-and-dance. That canvas, an idyllic image of unfettered Western joie de vivre, was a blockbuster for Bingham, widely reproduced as an invitation to Go West, young man, go West! (Bingham’s own life in Missouri was not one of untrammeled happiness—his first wife died at twenty-nine, his second was institutionalized.) Hawks’s The Big Sky catches the exuberance of Jolly Flatboatmen, but Jones changes Bingham’s cloudless day to a pitch-black night, turns the flatboatman from gay youth to creaky old age, and makes his dance a desperate, instinctive, half-understood ritual gesture, a dance in defiance of the darkness. One sees not just whoopin’ and hollerin’ release, but the lifetime of hurt that requires such a release to forget. As Briggs dances, Jones cuts almost digressively to the image of an unseen passenger discreetly shoving a hand-carved wooden tombstone that Briggs has propped against the side of the vessel into the water. It combines for one of those cleansing river scenes that conclude so many of the finest American movies, from Some Came Running to Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa—a moment which suggests a letting go, while also leaving the possibility of fresh violence hanging in the air. It also happens to contain something rare in this and any age: a touch of the sublime.