by David Robinson, Movie Reviewer
“The Homesman” stars and is directed by Tommy Lee Jones, in his second time behind the camera. Jones and co-star Hillary Swank dominate the action, but he has rounded up a fine supporting cast, featuring cameos by James Spader, John Lithgow, and Meryl Streep. He has also, as executive producer, engaged the services of Marco Beltrami, whose hauntingly understated score adds greatly to the effect of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s images of the Great Prairie’s stark and harsh beauty.
The gist of the plot involves the attempt of Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) to bring three women who have been driven mad by frontier life back to the relative civilization of Iowa. She gets the job by default when their men folk all refuse. Securing a wagon with a makeshift jail on it, she rounds up the women (played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter in three demanding roles), but only with help of a drifter named (maybe) George Briggs (Jones). She gets his help by saving him from hanging, promising him $300 when the women are successfully delivered to a Methodist minister’s wife (Streep).
To say that Briggs is not trustworthy is to say the very least. He’s a claim jumper, a drunk, a liar, a thief, and, it turns out, a murderer. If the self-sufficient Cuddy cares about her neighbors, Briggs looks out for #1. Given their characters, we shouldn’t be surprised about what occurs on their arduous journey east. But the screenplay, adapted by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, and Wesley A. Oliver from Glendon Swarthout’s novel, constantly surprises. The ending, though perfectly fitting, still brings the viewer up a bit short. It resolves the major tension, the story’s project, but departs from the usual resolutions of Hollywood pictures. Its literary predecessor is “Huck Finn,” rather than “High Noon.”
Jones is at the top of his form here. His character is at once hateful and funny, honorable and a trickster, faithful in his decidedly unique fashion and utterly self-serving. For her part, Swank can’t be made quite plain enough to fit the script’s constant assertion, but she is bossy enough to make us believe that the men to whom she proposes want no part of her. Watching the two Oscar winners interact is a treat.
“The Homesman” is properly rated “R” for language, violence, and some incidental nudity. It’s a small, slow-paced film that, its stars notwithstanding, will likely not do much business at the box office But if you want to see a twist on the various formulas of the classic Western movie, this one is worth seeking out.