Cormac McCarthy had no hand in the production of The Homesman, but his shadow stretches long over Tommy Lee Jones’ neo-Western. The spare landscape, lensed with wintery clarity by Rodrigo Pietro, embodies the harsh tone of the author’s prose while also allowing for the glimpses of poetry that pervade his writing. The setting is, of course, a familiar one in McCarthy’s work – the American frontier, a paradoxical world of moralistic religiosity and Darwinist selfishness, a world where gunfights are conducted with a peculiar kind of honour.
As in McCarthy’s seminal Blood Meridian, Jones strips back the civilized veneer of nascent America, revealing not Blood Meridian’s grotesque, visceral violence but rather interrogating the inescapable sexism of the era. The plot revolves around unmarried farmer Mary Bee Cuddy’s (Hilary Swank) transportation of three mentally ill women from Nebraskan territory to Iowa, accompanied by one George Briggs (Jones, who’s largely sidelined until the third act), but its more interested in navigating the particulars of gender injustice than the trail they follow.
The third act of the film suggests righteous revolution with a fierce conflagration, but is soon quenched by a damping mood of resignation. As in McCarthy’s writing, optimism is hard-fought and fleeting.