The Homesman

Three crazy women + a five week journey = a lot of imbibed booze. Academy Award winners Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank star in The Homesman.

The HomesmanCast of Characters:
George Briggs – Tommy Lee Jones
Mary Bee Cuddy – Hilary Swank
Buster Shaver – Barry Corbin
Thor Svendsen – David Dencik
Vester Belknap – William Fichtner
Arabella Sours – Grace Gummer
Bob Giffen – Evan Jones
Reverend Dowd – John Lithgow
The Freighter – Tim Blake Nelson
Theoline Belknapp – Miranda Otto
Garn Sours – Jesse Plemons
Gro Svendsen – Sonja Richter
Aloysius Duffy – James Spader
Tabitha Hutchinson – Hailee Steinfeld
Altha Carter – Meryl Streep

Director – Tommy Lee Jones
Screenplay – Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley Oliver
Based on the novel The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout
Producer – Peter Brant, Brian Kennedy & Luc Besson
Rated R for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a middle-aged spinster from New York who moved out to the Midwest in Nebraska for more opportunity. Despite sizable land ownership and financial prosperity, she suffers from isolation depression after being rejected numerous times by suitors who deem her too “plain”.

Following a harsh winter, three woman – Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknapp (Miranda Otto) and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) – are struck with a form of insanity brought on by the various hardships they faced. The local minister, Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow) calls upon one of the women’s husbands to escort them back to a church in Iowa that cares for the mentally ill, but when the three seem unsuited for the task, Cuddy accepts the offer.

As Cuddy begins her journey, she stumbles upon a claim jumper, in the process of being lynched, by the name of George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones). Knowing she can’t make the journey on her own, she offers to save his life if he, in return, helps escort the women back East.

The Homesman is Tommy Lee Jones’s second directorial feature, which he also co-wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver, following his 2005 debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. It’s clear that Jones has a love for the western genre, and in a day and age where that genre seems to have faded away (although Tarantino’s doing his best to bring it back), it’s nice to see an established actor such as Jones not only do what he can to keep it going, but provide a refreshing spin on things.

This is not your traditional western. There really is no established antagonist, there’s no shootout and the bloodshed, save a few violent moments (which aren’t exactly bloody, but just jarring to witness), is kept to a minimum. Yet this film is still as bleak, if not bleaker, than most westerns ’cause what Jones does right here, more than anything else, is show just how much it had to have sucked back in the Old West. With each shot, Jones and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto capture something both beautiful and ominous at once within a barren 1850’s Nebraska setting.

Jones has amassed quite an assembling of talent – which shows the respect he has as an actor and now filmmaker – with the likes of John Lithgow, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and Meryl Streep appearing throughout the course of the film without it every feeling like a who’s who lineup. This is the Jones and Hilary Swanks show, though. Both of them own this film, embodying two characters that might seem like tropes (the religious girl vs. the hardened jackass), but they provide much depth to these wounded souls to overcome what initially would appear as cliche on paper. It’s, of course, Jones doing his usual irascible curmudgeon schtick he’s probably been doing since he’s been in diapers, but every now and then he reveals a little bit of humanity that shows he’s more than just a grizzled old prick.

Swank is in top form, giving the best work she’s done in years, which doesn’t seem like much since it feels like forever since I last saw her onscreen. Swank finds a perfect balance between strong-willed and vulnerability, pulling no punches with her no-nonsense talk, while hiding an inner sadness that has her sharing more in common with the insane women she’s transporting.

At times, Jones’s direction is handled with such understated touch that that narrative sometimes has a tendency to wander a bit, but that could be the intention. Living out in the West back in those days certainly came with its fair share of unpredictability, and Jones provides a few effective turns that support that thought. One midway turn, in particular, will be sure to leave viewers gasping.

There’s no shortage of strangeness to be found here, but despite a tone that sometimes verges on being shifty, The Homesman is still an absorbing journey, featuring two wonderful performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank, that doesn’t shy away from the stark conditions that existed in the Old West. It’s also further proof that Jones, with now two films under his belt, can possibly setup an established career behind the camera.

I give The Homesman an A- (★★★½).

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