Three hundred dollars’ worth

This is my review of The Homesman [DVD] [2014].

In an unusual take on a mid-nineteenth century western, Hilary Swank produces a striking performance as Mary Bee Cuddy, an industrious and competent woman who is making a success of farming in a remote Nebraskan pioneer community. Although men respect her, no one is prepared to take such a bossy and plain woman as a wife. Instead, they trek east to find pretty, submissive women who are often completely unsuited to the hard rural life where there is no social security net to help those driven mad in the face of persistent crop failure, loneliness, infant mortality or perhaps the sheer scale of the treeless landscape which often resembles an ocean beneath the vast skies.

Mary Bee agrees to accompany three such "crazy" women on the demanding five week trek back east to the care of a kindly Iowan pastor. Realising that she cannot achieve this single-handed, she saves from a lynching the disreputable "George Briggs", no doubt one of many aliases, played by Tommy Lee Jones who also directs the picture. The outcome of the journey proves quite unpredictable, with a twist which viewers may find hard to accept, but which makes sense on reflection.

Apart from being well-acted, with superb photography and a haunting opening musical theme, this film has stunning photography of the bleak beauty of the Nebraskan high plains, some moments of comedy, but is essentially a grim tale. At times it regresses into a standard "shoot `em or burn `em" western, and some scenes designed to explain further the women's insanity are hard to take, and a little too disjointed. However, overall, the film's unusual theme makes it worth watching. It made me think more deeply than before about the particular plight of women trapped in pioneering communities about which they must often have been misled in advance. It also presents a somewhat nihilistic view of life in which people nevertheless continue to do good, perhaps in spite of themselves, achieving small successes even if they are soon forgotten. The inconclusive ending is very apt.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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