In the TV series “Lonesome Dove,” Tommy Lee Jones’s character schleps a friend’s corpse (Robert Duvall) behind his horse for months, to honor his burial request, even though it was hundreds of miles through Wild West territory.
In the Jones-directed “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” he also takes a journey to bury someone, because he promised.
In his latest directorial effort, “The Homesman,” his character carts three insane women across Nebraska in a covered wagon. Why? He promised he’d do it.
That’s a fair portion of Tommy Lee’s life dedicated to telling stories about schlepping and carting variously incapacitated people long distances through the Wild West, because he promised to.
Come to think of it, Tommy Lee’s character in “The Fugitive,” U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, is also man of his word by any means necessary.
What’s significant about that particular motif? We’ll come back to it.
Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a 31-year-old single woman living in 1800s Nebraska. She does okay for herself, tilling her own land. It makes for an arresting tableau: plowshare, oxen, billowing skirt, bonnet. Frontierswomen were awesome.
She can’t catch a break husband-wise, though. Nobody wants her because she’s “plain as an old tin pail. And bossy.” She’s pretty desperate. She has a man over to dinner and immediately proposes to him. He’s not having it. We get the sense she’s done this before. Well, the community respects her anyhow.
But one immediately disrespects the casting. A-list Hollywood knockout Hilary Swank and “old tin pail” can’t exist in the same sentence, regardless of the lengths the lighting designer went toward uglifying her.
Anyway, three young women in Mary’s community lose their minds to what was euphemistically known as “prairie madness,” but which in these instances specifically involved unabated grief due to infanticide via outhouse toilet, spousal rape, diphtheria, and self-mutilation by sewing needle.
Agoraphobia, loneliness, fear of murderous tribes, along with the inherent prairie hardships of drought, blizzards, locusts, rattlesnakes, etc., blew a lot of women’s minds out back in the day.
The local priest (John Lithgow) arranges to have the women transported to a parsonage in Iowa. Mary Bee volunteers to take them, since these women’s husbands constitute a loser-collective.
Meanwhile, army deserter and claim jumper George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) gets somewhat hilariously dynamited out of his stolen house, and horse-lynched (that’s where you get tied to your horse, which eventually gets hungry and wanders off from the hanging-tree).
Mary Bee happens by before George’s horse gets hungry, and cuts him loose under the condition that he accompany her and her rolling loony bin to Iowa.
Off they go, with a flapping clothesline strung between a shovel and an axe on the roof. Talk about your long, strange trips. And there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. And headbanging. A veritable cargo of madness.
Mostly, though, it’s a boring journey of tremendous hardship, through endless burnt sienna, raw umber, and muted yellow ochre flatlands.
Toward the end, they discover a little girl’s desecrated grave, which Mary insists on restoring, and which results in her getting lost, freezing, and attempting to eat frozen prairie grass.
She eventually catches up with George and the wagon, but the ordeal has shattered something in her. After one last plea to George for the comfort of companionship (which he rejects), we finally witness the hellhounds on her lonely trail close in.
With all the women in this movie, you’d imagine “The Homesman” might be a sort of feminist Western, but it’s definitely not. Everyone knows pioneer women were tough as nails, but the movie is more about the fact that no matter how hard frontier folks were, nature was harder.
But it’s not really about that. It’s about Tommy Lee’s ongoing homage to keeping one’s word. Diane Lane’s character in “Lonesome Dove” calls into question the hyper-masculine, unbending aspect of it that easily loses sight of reality and jeopardizes human (often feminine) needs in the here and now, due to cocked-up notions of honor.
That would appear to be addressed in “The Homesman” as well. George is a scoundrel and a misfit and a deserter, but he’s also a manly man, and when he says he’s going to do something, by golly, he does what he said he’d do.
Setting out on journeys with do-or-die, all-or-none male versions of keeping one’s word is admirable, if arguably not always the best choice. Tommy Lee’s built his career on it.
Here’s a quick rundown of life in Nebraska at that time:
- In 1862, in Nebraska, you could pay ten dollars and get yourself 160 acres of land.
- Pioneer life was rough—you might have had to live in a man-made cave called a “dug-out” with an old blanket for a door.
- Prairie fires were serious business; they destroyed crops, buildings, and towns.
- Native-American tribes included the Oto, Pawnee, Dakota, Iowa, Cheyenne, Ponca, and Omaha.
- And after the Civil War, many former slaves settled in central and western Nebraska.
- In 1854, President Franklin Pierce officially opened Nebraska Territory to whites.
- Thousands of settlers crossed Nebraska, en route to Oregon and California. Some stayed and operated truckstop-like “road ranches” along the covered wagon trails. Most were abandoned when the railroads came.
- Blizzards, drought, and locust plagues were also major problems. Plenty of pioneers got discouraged and quit Nebraska.
Source: Nebraska State Historical Society
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Hailee Steinfeld, James Spader, Meryl Streep
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Release date: Nov. 14
2 stars out of 5