“The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”

— Willa Cather

Mary Bee Cuddy stands against the bleak horizon of the Nebraska prairie, and both are cold and plain, plain without a hint of beauty and without the promise of spring anywhere in sight.

Mary Bee Cuddy came to this place in her late youth, with some family money from back east, and she made investments in land and has done well. But she is alone. There are a few other pioneers on this barren late winter prairie, and they all admire her, but still, she is plain and alone. Hilary Swank is Mary, and she has found a place deep in the heart of this character and she indwells it. It pours out of her eyes and trembles on her lips. Hilary Swank is Mary Bee Cuddy, and director/co-star Tommy Lee Jones knew what an actor he was getting.

Mary, when she was young, loved playing the piano, and now sits before a quilt made to look like a keyboard and sings along with a melody in her head.

She has had a suitor or two who wanted to share her 60 acres and make some money from it, but this homespun wind burnt Eve wants an Adam to cook for and have a child or two to leave her land to. Some will ride out of the vast nothingness to taste her delicious cooking, and then, when the marriage word pops up, they ride back out again and leave her in the aloneness of it all, telling her she is “too plain and too bossy.” Yes, she is that, but we know that it is the strength and intelligence that burns out of her eyes that frightens them more.

A fork pops up on her solitary road. Three local women, young and middle aged, have unraveled and lost their grip on reality (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter). The bleak, treeless nothingness of their world and the cold brutality of their husbands have driven them to insanity.

The local preacher, Reverend Dowd, (John Lithgow) writes a letter to a fellow pastor back in Iowa, and arranges to have the women sent back where they can be treated. None of the three husbands or anyone else will drive them back — Mary volunteers. She is given an old prison wagon, eight by four with barred windows, two mules, provisions and the three crazy women.

Along the way she comes upon a man in long johns, sitting atop a motionless horse, his neck in a noose. He is Briggs, a claim jumper who has been left in the wild to wait for the horse to leave him behind. This will be Tommy Lee Jones in what may be his finest role, a curmudgeonly, cynical drifter who has come from dark nothingness. Director Jones clearly knows his West and resists softening it in any way.

Mary makes him an offer: help her take these crazy women through Indian and bandit country to Iowa, and she will cut him down. And so, the deal made, they are off. It will be a journey to remember.

“Homesman” is no sentimental John Ford journey to the past, no “True Grit” buddy road movie shared with simple girl and grizzled gunman. It is an honest, hard scrabble film with hard-to-watch moments, sad surprises, and a totally unsentimental look at the way the old west and its players lived out their short, brutal self serving lives.

Towards the end of the journey, Briggs softens a bit, but his weakness for the bottomless jug always deepens his darkness.

Jones is, as always, powerful, believable and often funny. John Lithgow is Lithgowish as usual as the minister, and James Spader and the great Tim Blake Nelson are along as threatening louts, and Meryl Streep makes a bookend appearance. “Homesman” is long and sometimes hard to take. The plains, shot in New Mexico, would drive George Patton to madness, but they are splendidly shot by Rodrigo Prieto, and Marco Beltrami’s score strong and proper. Pay particular attention to Lahly Poore’s costume designs that seem to walk out of the 1850s.

Jones, and his co-writers Kiernan Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver adapted the novel by Glendon Swarthout, and clearly made no attempt to brighten the landscape or the souls.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

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