Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is an independent, single and lonely woman living on the American frontier who volunteers to transport three mentally insane women across the frontier and into Iowa. In the early stages of the journey she meets George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) who is about to be hung for using a man's land as his own. With the promise of assisting Mary on her journey, George is set free and accompanies Mary as she moves the three women across the border into Iowa for better care.
Throughout the golden age of Hollywood the Western genre was one of the most dominant and popular of genres, but since the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood the Western genre started to decline and it never fully recovered. That's not to say there hasn't been any landmarks of the genre, think Clint Eastwood's 1992 Best Picture Winner Unforgiven, the Coen's Brother's True Grit and The Assassination of Jessie James By the Coward Robert Ford. It is, however, a shame that this iconic, American genre plays a smaller part in cinema because no genre uses landscape and location shooting to greater effect.
This leads me on to The Homesman which uses its setting and landscapes to great effect by illuminating the vast, empty landscapes which really do show how daunting the task ahead is. Travelling across these empty landscapes seems the mirror the hopelessness of the lives of those who live in the frontier, particularly the three women driven to madness by the tough conditions in the American frontier. Marco Beltrami's score is excellent as it also emphasises the tough conditions of the American frontier and the bleakness of the landscape very much reflects the bleakness of the period, it was tough living on the frontier, particularly for women.
For that reason its why The Homesman has been branded a feminist film, it's not often that a female is the central character in a Western (Revisionist Western to be precise) but in The Homesman we have an engaging and well written female character. She lives alone and without a husband, her desperate attempts to find a husband clearly emphasise her loneliness (people have argued this counters the film's feminist ideas, it's nonsense. I mean god forbid a woman, you know a fellow human being, seek companionship, it doesn't make her any less of a strong, independent woman).
She takes on the overwhelming task that no man was willing to do, perhaps because she has very little to lose or perhaps it's because she is a strong, independent and good hearted woman. It is a vast, difficult journey with plenty of threats in a world that was particularly threatening towards women, it was better to shot yourself rather than be captured. Hilary Swank is, of course, superb in the role of Mary Bee Cuddy.
Mary Bee Cuddy is undoubtedly a highly engaging character, but George Briggs' transformation from grumpy, selfish curmudgeon to a man of honour is the film's most rewarding aspect. It's a great, powerful performance by Tommy Lee Jones (whose directorial work is top notch), and the character's transformation and the circumstances concerning that makes the film an incredibly poignant one.