Film and TV

Only the Strong Survive in The Homesman

Tales of the Old West continue to make up a significant portion of our cultural narrative, mostly because we still like to comfort ourselves with stories showing that ours is a land of opportunity. Making the trek to the American frontier promised a new life — or at the very least, a fresh start. With The Homesman, director/co-star Tommy Lee Jones inverts this storyline, presenting a bleak yet accomplished account of defeat, of how that frontier often forced a surrender of the mind, spirit, and even the soul. Life in the Nebraska Territory is harsh, but you don't need to tell lonely Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) that. Holder of two sizable land claims and one of the few farmers in the area turning a profit, she's nonetheless unable to complete her Wild West trifecta by getting hitched (she's referred to as both "too bossy" and "too plain" for matrimony on several occasions). However, she's got it relatively easy compared to Arabella (Grace Gummer), Theoline (Miranda Otto) and Gro (Sonja Richter), three women who've all lost their minds. Mary Bee agrees to transport the women to their families back east before they do more harm to themselves or their families (only after the men in the town fail to volunteer for the duty). Reluctantly joining her in this venture is an unrepentant claim-jumper named George Briggs (Jones), whom she fortuitously saves from a lynching. The vast emptiness of the Territory, broken only intermittently by stunted trees, underscores the difficulty of Cuddy's mission while serving as a constant reminder of what helped drive the women from their sanity in the first place.

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Peter Vonder Haar is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.