The Homesman

The Homesman review by Graham Connors starring Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank, western film movie -

Directed by Tommy Lee Jones

Starring Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter and Grace Gummer.

There’s a lot of truth in the saying “what’s seldom is wonderful.” The last 25 years have given us some great westerns, due in no small part to the fact that we have not had anything resembling the genre saturation experienced in the 1930s through to the 1960s. Back when Audie Murphy, John Wayne and James Stewart were plying their trade every second film was a western (and everything else was a musical). Thankfully all that has changed as westerns are in the minority of modern genre films (I really hope superhero flicks go through the same cycle as right now I can’t handle the idea of 20 years of Iron Man and Thor and Batman). Some of the best recent examples are films that you wouldn’t even know are westerns, No Country For Old Men and The Guard being two. It’s almost refreshing and somewhat nostalgic to see a western on the big screen these days – especially a Tommy Lee Jones western. No other actor, bar Kevin Costner or Harrison Ford maybe, looks more suited to the western genre than the craggy faced, gruff voiced Tommy Lee Jones, attributes he uses gamely in The Homesman. Yes, if it hasn’t been made obvious in the above paragraph then I am willing to say it now – I love westerns. But is this a western that deserves to be loved?


Mary Bee Cuddy works a modest farm in the Nebraska Territories of the 1850s. The spinster, as “plain as an old tin pail” is conscious of the fact that time and opportunity for both marriage and children are slipping away. She craves both, going as far as proposing marriage to a local neighbour only to be rebuffed for being too bossy. And bossy she is, as well as stubborn but she is also a strong and moral woman. In her small community three women are declared insane and the local pastor organises to have the women taken to Iowa for treatment. It falls to one of the husbands to lead them across the country but when he refuses Mary Bee finds that no one else is willing to take on the journey – “people like to talk about death and taxes. When it comes to crazy they stay hushed up.” Duty bound to do right by these women, one of whom is an acquaintance of hers, Mary Bee volunteers. As she starts out on her odyssey she saves claim jumper George Briggs, a grumpy old fart of a cowboy, from a lynching and coerces him into helping her cross America with the three crazy women in tow.



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The Homesman is what is known as a revisionist western; it takes the accepted history and the norms of a genre and turns them upside down – it has a female lead, Indians appear only briefly with no bearing on the story, no lawmen are ever mentioned and the only shooting featured is done without any intent to harm (bar one occasion). It’s fair to say that very few westerns will feel like The Homesman – the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit being the only recent western that can compare. Swank seems perfectly cast as the stubborn Mary Bee and layers her very carefully, making sure that the viewer can empathise but never feel sorry for her. George Briggs is just as complicated. He is a flighty ex-soldier who doesn’t particularly care about anyone bar himself. He runs away from his responsibilities and only agrees to join Mary Bee once she has promised to pay him. Yet both Mary Bee and Briggs are more similar than they think, they are both outsiders looking in, people searching for their place in the world. The relationship between them is very reminiscent of the films Rooster Cogburn and the Lady or The African Queen – they were born to antagonise each other and for the most part they do. The inevitable softening of relations and development of a mutual respect does occur, but not as you would expect. Unfortunately the insanity of the women they are transporting is not handled with as much care. The three women (played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) are stereotypically portrayed as either catatonic zombies or snarling, spitting, wailing bints. Gummer and Otto add some depth to their characters, a series of flashbacks highlighting how frontier life has broken them but Richter is left with nothing to do but scream and grin and tell anyone who will listen that “the Lord will strike you down.” While these women are the driving force behind the story, the heart of the film is the relationship between Mary Bee and Briggs and how they struggle with each other but also how they look to find a place for themselves in this brand new America. They just want to belong somewhere.


For the most part The Homesman is a well-made, solid western that throws you a few curveballs in terms of tone and styling. This actually sets it apart from other revisionist westerns and Tommy Lee Jones, as director, really has to be commended for it. But – there’s always a “but” – there are at least two moments in the 122-minute running time where the plot does a sharp and sudden 90-degree turn. These are bold decisions on the part of Tommy Lee Jones but they pull the carefully built mood of the film apart, requiring the viewer to rebuild and re-engage with the characters. This is a very brave thing to do but for me these tonal shifts did not entirely work, one of them in particular left me angry, feeling a little short-changed to be honest. Yet, these narrative digressions were essential to build the characters, it just seems that they were executed with a little less precision, as this is a film that has been lovingly put together in every other way.


The Homesman is a different type of western. There are no heroes here; there are no shootouts or evil sheriffs or bad injuns (Native American Indians appear only once and very briefly). This is a film all about finding your place in the world, about redemption and that fine edge between doing what is right and doing what is easy. In many ways it is beautiful and heartbreaking, but also warm and reassuring. One thing is certain though; The Homesman deserves to be seen. It is not a modern classic but Tommy Lee Jones has breathed life into some compelling characters and crafted some beautiful and evocative images that truly deserve to be seen on the big screen.



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