While it's true that landscape is character in most westerns, it's also true that the character played by director/co-writer/star Tommy Lee Jones in The Homesman is landscape itself. When he first appears on the flat, hard prairie of 1850s Nebraska, he looks like a drifting range of New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Jones, directing his first movie since the bleakly effective, Peckinpah-flavoured 2005 neo-western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, plays George Briggs, a crusty, unreliable claim jumper required to repay a life-saving debt to the "plain as an old tin pail" prairie spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). Once she has unsuspended him from the rope from which he has been hanged for squatting in a dead man's hovel, Mary Bee enlists the drunken old coot for a mission she's taken on because no one else in this sparsely populated corner of the frontier will: the safe carriage of three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) to haven in Iowa, from where they'll be returned to family back east.
The women, as Jones establishes in a series of jolting flashbacks that approach horror-movie shock value, have been driven almost catatonically mad by life on the frontier, and Mary Bee – perhaps understanding their plight with more empathy than any man could or would, or possibly sensing premonitions of her own future – sees it as something of a calling to deliver them from this windy, dust-blown evil.
Insanity was a common byproduct of life on the Western frontier, albeit one rarely acknowledged by the popular mythology. The isolation, fear, boredom and (perhaps for women especially) sheer hardship of imposing some sense of order on such an unforgiving world was a virtual recipe for the unhinging of the mind.
In addressing not only this, but also flipping both the gender perspective and entire westward migration of the genre, Jones (adapting the late Glendon Swarthout's 1988 novel), is working a steadfastly revisionist groove. Or at least he is for part of the movie, and that's the aspect of The Homesman that will qualify it as engagingly eccentric for some viewers and maddeningly inconsistent for others. The fact is, it's as stubbornly and cantankerously eccentric as both its wagon drivers, not to mention driven to blaze its own trail through the narrative and mythological landscape of America's defining story form.
When The Homesman is preoccupied with Mary Bee and the mad women, it conveys a sensitivity to a woman's precarious place on the frontier with a blend of empathy and hard-bitten realism that's as rare in the western as non-violent resolutions and cloudy days. Despite her steely independence and judgmental piety, we see this hard and infinitely stretching world through Mary Bee's eyes, and understand entirely how the women she'll risk her life to extract eastward have lost their minds. Most remarkably, we see this even though the women themselves have practically no agency or character themselves: Once loaded and bolted into the wagon, they're pretty much carried across the prairie like mute livestock.
That Mary Bee herself starts to show signs of unhinging may seem only reasonable under the circumstances, but that it facilitates the movie's shift from her story to George's sets the stage for The Homesman's most curious and conspicuous narrative disruption, that of a quasi-feminist, anti-heroic western into an old-school story of male redemption and regeneration through violence. Which is to say The Homesman itself ultimately gives in to what Mary Bee and her damaged cargo are seeking to escape: an Old West where men and their guns are not only the ultimate authority, but the last word and final hope for the future.
In its own odd journey from the revisionist to the traditional, The Homesman covers a lot of ground, and it sometimes feels like it's lost its own grip on identity. But if it's crazy, it's largely admirably and bravely so, a fittingly strange movie about the sheer madness of life on the frontier.