Co-writer Tommy Lee Jones plays George Briggs in Glendon Swarthout’s novel The Homesman. Three women are driven mad by prairie life. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is taking them from Nebraska to Iowa in the 1850s to be looked after by the church in the east. On the way she rescues Briggs who has been left to be lynched after being worsted over a land claim. Briggs and Cuddy must nurse the women, ward off Pawnee warriors, deal with a thief, get lost, and suffer the cold weather. **SPOILER ALERT** They come across a hotel where the proprietor refuses to feed the hungry travellers. Briggs meets up with Meryl Streep as the preacher’s wife.
Hilary Swank is brilliant in this film. The men compare unfavourably with her resolution and intelligence. She wants marriage not for a meeting of minds, but to combat prairie isolation and privation. She is strong willed and resourceful. She is told she is plain by a muppet of a farmer, and by Briggs who has a face like boiled leather. Jones has promoted this as a western with a feminist agenda but this is not convincing, given that he does all the usual male things: he fights, he confronts the Pawnee, he bosses people, and plays the suppressed emotions card to his own convenience. **SPOILER ALERT** Cuddy gets him to sleep with her and then hangs herself leaving him to transport the women. Later they come to a bizarre hotel in the middle of nowhere. The Irish owner refuses food so Briggs torches the hotel. For me, this is a parable about the xenophobic greed the rich world shows to immigrants.
The film’s gaze on the landscape is unflinching as it monumentalizes the protagonists into appropriately mythic poses: either resigned. stoicism, or stony determination. The landscape is stunning, its golds and ochres dusting and fossilizing anything insolent enough to interrupt the prairie’s emptiness. The wood of the transport wagon, the textiles, and the horse leathers seem to be sculpted out of the barrenness all around. The interiors behind walls of crude mud brick are lit up like paintings held against it. The wagon itself creaks along like a boat over a sea of dust and yellow candlelight grass. The exposure to the vastness of the plains, with its threat of storms and tornadoes and predatory people, must have unsettled even the toughest of pioneers. John Lithgow plays a preacher, and when he makes a speech in church before Cuddy’s journey it has the same pioneering exhortation as Orson Welles’ sermon blessing the Pequod’s impending voyage in Moby Dick. Excellent.