‘Hillary Swank can’t find a husband’ provides the unlikely impetus for a a grizzly Western. The two-time Oscar winner tends to pick her projects carefully, this time co-starring alongside the film’s director, Tommy Lee Jones, in a strange spin on the road movie. Mary Bee Cutty (Swank) volunteers to take on the daunting task of transporting three mentally ill women, abandoned by their husbands, across the desert to a refuge. Having herself been rejected by numerous men for being ‘plain’ (one of the film’s few contrivances), she embarks on her journey by setting free a lynched man, George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), placing him in her debt and thus taking on his servitude, or at least with the incentive of financial reward.
Swank is a formidable force. Straight talking and tenacious, she conveys sheer determination, which is perhaps not a trait akin to the average, docile wife enjoyed by mid-19th century Nebraskan males. Tommy Lee Jones discovers a chilling tone to his film, these silent, deserted wives treated as meat by their husbands. The romanticism of the wild west is abandoned. Cutty is introduced to us seemingly on a date with a suitor, who laughs her off as she sings for him, fingers over a pretend piano. On a couple occasions, Briggs spontaneously bursts into a jig, which echoes madness rather than tribal charm, slicing through the viewer’s own psychological condition as the film verges in and out of a tone of fever dream.
The Homesman uses the western genre to slice through the absurdity of civilisation, reflecting and fracturing the strange conventions governing how people treat each other. Without sentimentality or romanticism, the loneliness and vastness of the desert is made to feel enormous, with Swank’s stern morality always a commanding presence.
Review by David Rank
The Homesman is out on 21st November the UK. Running time 122 mins. Certificate 15 (UK).