American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The journey in Tommy Lee Jones' "The Homesman", based on the 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, travels from west to east, from the unmarked Nebraska territory to a town in Iowa. It is a reverse trajectory of the typical Western path, the wildness of the prairies and plains reverting, startlingly, to a tame village perched on the edge of the placid Missouri River. When civilization finally arrives in the final section of the film, it seems palpably fragile; what has come before is so unremittingly desolate.
"The Homesman," despite the title, is about women. Women are the center of the action, women drive the action forward, women are not only damsels in distress but heroic figures of grit and courage (sometimes in the same moment). The men are helpless bystanders or ambiguous allies. There is only one villain in the film, and he is a villain because he is callous. He lacks empathy. Tommy Lee Jones, as a director, homes in on the surreal aspects of the story with beautiful sensitivity and strangeness ("The Homesman" is an extremely strange film), highlighting the monotony of the landscape in which figures are either dwarfed by the vastness of it or tower above the flat horizon. The West, as seen in "The Homesman," is an unforgiving place, with flashes of stark and nightmarish beauty. Three women have lost their minds in "The Homesman," but honestly, everyone you meet in the film is slightly crazy, the homesman most of all. Nobody is a pillar of mental health. Sanity, then, could be seen as overrated, especially in a world like the one in "The Homesman." And those who lose their minds may very well be the only realists in the story. These are deeply suggestive ideas, and when "The Homesman" works best it teeters around in that morally ambiguous territory. It's a risky film. Sometimes the risks pay off, sometimes they don't, but the feeling of risk infuses the film with chaos, humor, violence, beauty. "The Homesman" doesn't play things safe, and that's a welcome change.
Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a middle-aged woman, born in upstate New York, who has bought land in the Nebraska territory. She is unmarried and farms the land herself. She yearns to buy a piano and comforts herself by playing hymns on a cloth keyboard. She is seen early on proposing marriage to a farmer who owns land adjacent to hers. She pitches it as a business proposition, although there is an urgent need and fragility beneath her words that tell a different story. He turns her down pretty bluntly: "You're too bossy and you're too damn plain." It hurts, it hurts bad, but Mary Bee does not pity herself. She has too much work to do.
During the tail-end of a particularly terrible winter, three women in the area descend into varying degrees of psychosis, dissociation, self-harm, and derangement. It is clear that they need to be transported to a place that can treat them, and the minister (John Lithgow) has a connection with a church in Iowa that has agreed to take them in. When the menfolk in the congregation balk at the job of transport, Mary Bee takes it on. A glorified paddy wagon is provided, complete with iron rings on the interior in order to chain the women in place, should it be necessary. The journey will be dangerous and long, and Mary Bee needs to hire a homesman, and George Briggs, a drunken out-for-himself claim-jumper, is just the man for the job. Mary Bee pitches it to him with the same matter-of-fact tone that she proposed marriage, telling him exactly what she needs and expects, and exactly what she will not tolerate. He's a bit of a buffoon, in his filthy long-johns and whining voice, but he needs the money.