Overview:  A single woman enlists the help of a desperate claims jumper to transport three women, each driven to madness, across the dangerous frontier landscape of the 1850s. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Saban Films/Roadside Attractions; 2014; Rated R; 122 Minutes.

Nightmarish Vision:  While early, pre-John Ford American Westerns often had a tendency to romanticize the era and its inhabitants, there have been plenty of Westerns since that have captured, with biting realism, the harsh and merciless reality of the 19th Century American frontier. Yet, I’ve seen very few Westerns as unflinching toward that realism as The HomesmanThe Homesman observes its own visual realism without dramatic calculation. Director Tommy Lee Jones and Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto point a camera as fixed and unobstrusive as that of Clint Eastwood’s at the height of his career, the tracking movements as basic as the Coen Brothers’, while along the edges of the frame, disturbing and terrifying events unfold almost by happenstance. The story centers around three women who have had mental breakdowns of one form or another, and the madness of these women is illustrated through flashing vignettes of pure horror, captured by unconcerned cameras. Even as the movie maintains beats of comedic value, these nightmare lapses and Marco Beltrami’s haunting score (perhaps the most functional score I’ve heard this year) never fully allow the viewer to step away from the anchor of anxiety.

Cultural Measure:  The landscape of the Nebraska/Iowa frontier is presented by Prieto in spare, simple shots that are somehow overwhelming in their heaviness. As is the case in the best migratory Westerns, the lethality of the geography is ever-present, an antagonistic character hiding in every scene. The Homesman presents an uncanny journey in that our protagonist, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), is moving inward from the outside of civilization.   In the simplest reading, The Homesman is a Western of feminist attention. The women in need of transport have all been broken by the strain and smothering loneliness of being pioneer women– daughters, wives, mothers unable to function in their roles.  Cuddy is a farmer unable to find a husband, burdened by her inability to function as expected by the social standards established by the Eastern life she left behind, a culture that is sluggishly making its way back to her. But a wider perspective reveals that the film intends to document all of the discarded citizens of a society that has moved ahead of itself. Even Cuddy’s makeshift partner, who introduces himself as George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), is a man who has no place, who wants to be unapologetic about having no place but who carries despair too large to hide.

Collection of Talent:  It seems like Jones might have pulled a lot of owed favors from old friends here. Oscar-caliber talent waltzes across the screen two or three minutes at a time.  The Homesman has perhaps the most impressive cast of the year. James Spader, Hailie Steinfield, Tim Blake Nelson, William Fichtner, John Lithgow, and Meryl Streep all make appearances. But the film is held together by the performances at the top of the billing. As an actor, Jones hasn’t been this good since No Country for Old Men, and Swank gives her best effort since her Oscar-winning turn in Million Dollar Baby. Just two more reasons why The Homesman shouldn’t be missed.

Grade:  A-