The Homesman (2014) / Western-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity
Running Time: 122 min.
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, John Lithgow, Meryl Streep, James Spader, William Fichtner, David Dencik, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Corbin, Hailee Steinfeld
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Screenplay: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver (based on a book by Glendon Swarthout)
Review published November 10, 2014
Set in the unruly Nebraska Territories of mid-19th Century America, Hilary Swank (The Resident, PS I Love You) stars as spinster Mary Bee Cuddy, a woman who is told she is too plain and bossy for a man to marry, who takes up the difficult task of transporting three women with deep mental illness across hundreds of miles of dangerous terrain to find a benevolent Iowa home with a preacher and his wife. Along the way she saves the life of a wayward drunk who calls himself George Briggs (Jones, The Family), demanding his assistance in the mission in exchange for his life, to which he reluctantly accepts. With dangerous outlaws, unfriendly indigenous people, and other maladies along the way, the road is a treacherous one, especially when hauling three women who are likely to maim each other, if they don't take their own lives.
Tommy Lee Jones not only co-stars, but co-writes and directs this thoughtful Western, making the most of his second time at the helm, coming after 2005's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. He adapts Glendon Swarthout's novel of the same name, a book revered enough to have gotten Paul Newman interested in bringing it to the big screen back in the day. It's an understated treatment that never really spells out character motivation, letting us make what we will of what transpires and why, which is quite refreshing in this day and age of dumbed down plotting and over-exposition. In particular, we're privy to witnessing the dire and desperate home lives of the insane women, whose psyches may have cracked at the hands of their no-good husbands who can't live with them, yet can't kill them.
Swank is in fine form, though she is still a good sight better looking than most of the married women in the cast, which makes one scratch the head why the men she aims to marry make it seem like she's too unpleasant on the eyes to consider. Jones always feels right at home in films like this, and its commendable to see him maintain an offbeat tone to this tale throughout that brings out some much needed levity to what is essentially an underlying tale of misery and savage injustice in a harsh time in America for women and so-called undesirables. Westerns are usually very male-centric stories, and while it's not exactly a feminist work, it is one that explores how difficult the period had been for women, in a time where they had little say, treated mostly as property by husbands who could do pretty much whatever they wanted. And no man wants Mary Bee Cuddy; she's a woman who speaks her mind.
With two terrific lead performances, a wonderful sense of period, a number of story surprises, a gaggle of quality supporting actors, Jones' penchant for wry humor, and some very nice cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto (The Wolf of Wall Street, Argo), The Homesman emerges as one of the most under-seen films of 2014. Fans of Westerns, obviously, will enjoy The Homesman more so than most, particularly those who enjoy the ones directed by Clint Eastwood, but for those who think they've already seen everything the genre has to offer, this offbeat oater odyssey is one that's worth going out of your way for.
©2014 Vince Leo