Western Week: The Homesman (2014)

Over the course of this week, I'll be looking at five Westerns from the past 20 years, a particularly fascinating period in a genre that has long since left its glory days, but continues to produce some gems. Big spoilers in this one.

"I live uncommonly alone."

"I live uncommonly alone."

Adapted from: The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter

Written by: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver

Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones

One of the lesser known aspects of life out west was the emotional toll that it often took on the women who accompanied the men staking claims on the land and the practice of claims jumpers, men who would jump in to an empty home whilst its owner was away and file for ownership to make money. In his Afterword, Miles Swarthout, son of author Glendon, states that the idea for The Homesman came from Swarthout's research into frontier memoirs, but there was scant information available on the period, specifically around the 1850s. He became fascinated not with the success stories of Manifest Destiny, but the 'Losers,' the men and women who could no longer cope with the rigours of frontier lifestyle and had to retreat to the relative safety of the east.

Through this research, Swarthout developed the story of The Homesman, based on his own theories about what happened to the women who succumbed to madness in the face of the harsh conditions. It follows Mary Bee Cuddy, a single woman making a success of her claim who, through various circumstances, finds herself taking on a journey back east for the sake of four women (three in the film) who have been driven mad by their respective experiences. In the process, she saves the life of an Army deserter and claims jumper, George Briggs, who swears to accompany her on her journey as result.

Tommy Lee Jones' film has been labelled a 'feminist Western' and for at least three-quarters of its running time, it manages to be just that. The hardships faced by women on the frontier are presented coldly by Swarthout and Jones, unflinchingly illustrating the conditions that led to the women's madness. Not only does it concern itself with the environmental problems faced by these women, but also the social ones. Gro is repeatedly sexually abused by her husband who is desperate for a son, and in one deeply uncomfortable scene, this occurs in front of her bedridden mother to the horror of the women. When Arabella is taken by a freighter, he concerns himself only with the fact that she can still "spread her legs" and her husband hurls abuse at her as she is taken away, despite knowing she is unwell.

The men in these scenes are not let off lightly by either Swarthout or Jones, demonstrating repeatedly how irresponsible they have been when it comes to their wives. Briggs is treated in much the same fashion up until the film's final act. He's quick to judge Mary Bee, insult her appearance and her unmarried status, maintaining that he is only here for the money he gets once the women have been delivered safely. Jones does not retreat entirely from the awfulness inherent in Briggs' character, but perhaps downplays it somewhat in order to keep the character sympathetic and allow for the emotional beats of the ending to land.

The film's third act, carried over from the novel's, is rife with problems if it is to be declared a feminist Western. Westerns, and films in general, are littered with dead women who are killed in order to motivate the chief male character. The Homesman may look as if it is set to subvert everything with the figure of Mary Bee Cuddy, not unlike True Grit's Mattie Ross, but then Swarthout kills her off. She's one of the most resilient women there is, surviving on her own on the frontier and becoming one of the most prosperous people in her locality. It's an unthinkable feat to do this in the nineteenth century. But then she succumbs to the pressure of her society, just like that. After Briggs refuses her proposal, just like we see a man do at the beginning of the film, she simply cracks and kills herself, becoming another casualty in the road to one man's redemption, in this case, Briggs.

Mary Bee's death not only jars at an emotional level, but at a narrative one too. Jones places Mary Bee at the heart of his film and gives a complementary but never dominating performance of his own. We follow Mary Bee from her terrible and unsuccessful marriage proposal, her acceptance of the 'homesman' role and then through her to leading the journey back east. She is our hero, the one we're supposed to root for and the film and novel make that clear at every point in her story, up until her death. Hilary Swank's performance is full of a sorrowful dignity and her Mary Bee is a woman of integrity, yet still struggling under the weight of social expectation. Her situation is a tragic one, but it feels like something that she will overcome. To lose her for the final act is a bad rug pull and a disservice to a character that we're led to identify as our central figure. 

From there, Briggs becomes the focus. It is his quest to get these women to the Iowa parsonage in order to see them home. Without Mary Bee's death, the film and the book make it clear that Briggs would simply have taken the money and run, something he initially tries to do until the women call him back and wake up his conscience. For a story that opens so promisingly and focuses so keenly on how horrendously these women are treated, it quickly forgets that this should be their story and not Briggs. It also gives the film a curiously hopeless tone to end on; women simply cannot survive on their own. They must be taken care of by a man willing to show them the way, like the scene in which Briggs tells the girl (Mattie Ross herself, Hailee Steinfeld) that she shouldn't get married and go out West.

It makes The Homesman a frustrating narrative to read and to watch, though the blame is laid more at Swarthout's feat than Jones'. Praise must be given for rooting out an unconventional story and attempting to place women as the focus. The novel and, by extension, the film are striving for a really interesting examination of Western gender politics and a revisionist view of a historical period often painted as a golden example of the American Dream. However, it falls at the final hurdle, twisting itself into becoming another story of an outlaw type finding redemption. Jones adapts the book faithfully and creates some truly beautiful imagery to convey the savagery in the task that Mary Bee and Briggs face, but this is one adaptation where I wish a little more liberty had been taken.