TL;DR – The Homesman is a western period piece about a spinster who meets a claim jumper and the two take three women driven mad by personal loss across the Missouri river to Iowa. Crippled only really by the lack of plot, Jones has shown himself to be a capable director and Swank, as always, gives a beautiful performance. Plenty of great cameos also make this a film worth watching, if not worth watching more than once.
The western genre seems to have died out in recent years. Tarantino may be bringing it back next year full swing with The Hateful Eight and we got a “sorta” western out of Django Unchained. But otherwise, westerns don’t seem to bemadea lot anymore since they were largely exhausted in the days offilmmaking lore.The Homesman is the lone film standing in a largely now-deadened genre.
Based on the book by Glendon Swarthout, The Homesman is about Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteering as tribute (sorry, couldn’t resist) to take three women who have gone mad across the Missouri river to Iowa to a pastor more able to take care of them. The women have all been driven insane due to the harsh conditions of living in the west and that there are a million ways to die there, as Seth MacFarlane reminded us. (it actually takes place in the Midwest, but, you know, details). There are more specific reasons for each of their insanity, but I’ll let the movie tell you about those.
As a thirty-one year old spinster, Cuddy spends the first sequence of the film promptinga friend named Bob Giffen (Evan Jones) into marriage. He refuses based on the fact that she’s plain looking. In this time period, marriage for love didn’t exist yet. Marriage was typically done for survival, as it took two hands to handle all of the responsibilities of homemaking and farming. It’s pretty miraculous that Cuddy was able to make it this far without a husband (perhaps that should have been addressed in the film…). When the reverend Alfred Dowd (John Lithgow) decides to ask for help in getting the women driven mad across the Missouri river, the man meant to go refuses and Swank offers to go instead. Back then, men typically bore the responsibility of taking immigrants back to their homeland (hence the film’s title). No sooner does she set out when she encounters George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) whom she enlists to help her in exchanging for cutting him off his noose (he has a noose around his neck and he’s sitting on his horse. He was supposed to be lynched by a group of men for squatting in another man’s house. None of these men tried to ensure his lynching. They just left him on the horse. I’m sorry, but that’s terrible writing and borderline deus exmachina.).
After she releases him, the plot grinds to an almost complete halt. The story becomes a string of scenes of their trek across Nebraska and Iowa. The scenes are wonderfully executed and interesting to watch, but the lack of a plot is a bit of a rip off to the audience baited into one that was set up so much in the beginning.
Hilary Swank plays the ultimate anti-conventional-gender-roles character; a woman doing a man’s job and taking the lead even with a man right next to her the whole way out. This is highlighted even more by the time in which the story takes place. The battling of gender roles was not on the forefront of peoples’ minds back then because of the whole minor, you know, survival thing. There’s always a sense of urgency and struggle going on within her, trying to balance the harsh reality of her journey, fulfilling her need for survival, and still managing to keep the feminist side of her pushing forward.
For me, the mark of a good director is someone who can frame a shot well and use it to tell part of the story. Lucky me that this seems to be what Jones feels as well. He often frames his shots in such a smart and thoughtful way. The picture always puts what it needs in there and guides your eyes right to what’s important. Where some directors opt for the somewhat haphazard approach to this, Jones, despite a lack of directing credits, actually shows a lot more potential as one than you might expect. But for this film, he was a director first and an actor second. I’ve noticed from his previous films that he suffers from what I call Christopher Walken syndrome: he plays one character in every film, BUT he plays that one character REALLY well. When we first meet him in the film, he seems to have shaken this syndrome, but as the film goes on, we start to see more and more of Agent Kay, Ed Tom Bell, Samuel Gerard, etc. thrown into 1850s Midwest. Every so often we see a the first guy pop out, but Jones just doesn’t seem to be able to shake the character he’s so used to playing and, frankly, we’ll never really get tired of watching him play it (at least I won’t).
Final grade: B