Into the Nebraska void by Richard Jones

A look at The Homesman (MA)…
homesman
IT can’t have been much fun stuck out on the dusty high plains of Nebraska in the mid-19th century.
Cut off from vibrant American society sited hundreds and hundreds of miles away to the east, for many settlers it was a case of just eking out an existence.
For farmer Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), though, life has worked out well.
She’s the owner of two land claims on the prairie and despite her geographical isolation manages to wring a small profit from her land through hard work and persistence.
To nearby male settlers – and potential suitors – she’s a tad difficult.
She’s in her 30s, a bit bossy and plain. It’s not as if Mary Bee has access to any pharmaceutical products, situated way out west in early 1850s Nebraska.
Then one day the community and especially the parish priest (John Lithgow) find a use for her. Three settlers’ wives are teetering on the edge of severe depression (they’re called ‘mad’) through the deaths of close family members.
All three are facing financial ruin.
They need to be taken east to Iowa to a sanatorium. The husbands are useless, so Mary Bee casts around for a ‘homesman’ – someone smart and strong who can not only survive out on the plains, but who is above all trustworthy.
Enter low-life drifter and possible Army deserter George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones). He joins the group for the journey on the reverse route to the one we normally see in US westerns.
A church minister and his wife Altha Carter (Meryl Streep) have offered to house the ailing women so the little covered wagon sets off on an arduous five-week trek.
They have to cross a massive river, then journey across the endless grasslands and, worst of all, survive bleak winter weather.
And the women have to be tied to the wagon wheels at night to prevent them running away. It’s harrowing stuff.
Rodrigo Preita’s camera captures the desolation of this part of the USA perfectly with his framing of moonlit skylines and endless horizons quite breathtaking.
And Jones not only plays the curmudgeonly Briggs he directs the film as well. He combines humour, some lyricism but also the brutality the three damaged women have endured with great directorial panache.
Even though Tommy Lee has told critics not to categorise his film as a ‘Western’, to this fan a Western it remains – and it fits into one of my favourite genres quite seamlessly.

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