The Homesman is not a happy movie. It’s not a fun watch, and it’s not something you watch on “movie night” unless the people with whom you’re watching are okay with bleak and slow-paced Westerns. It’s the type of thing you see alone on a day you don’t feel up to doing much, and wind up immersing yourself in director/star Tommy Lee Jones’ movie, which aims to be a realistic movie set in the Old West and telling a different story than similar films aim to tell.
Our film’s protagonist changes as the story progresses. It begins as Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a middle-aged woman who looks after her Nebraskan farm alone, since he’s been unable to find a man to marry her. She’s too plain, she’s frequently told. Three young woman have begun to show signs of insanity, so the town’s Reverend (John Lithgow), requires someone to transport the women to Iowa. A man named Vester (William Fichtner) leaves before a decision is made, and Mary winds up taking the job, since she can ride with the best of them. The men respect her, they really do; they just don’t want to be with her.
Before beginning this trip, she meets a man named George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones, also director and co-writer). He’s sitting on a horse, hanging in a noose. The horse moves, he dies. Mary tells him she’ll set him free if he does a job for her. She wants him to accompany her on this journey, which will not be an easy trip. Indeed, it won’t. This is The West, capital letters intentional. You don’t make it through here without running into bandits, Native Americans, and other unsavory folks. Yes, in these movies, the Native Americans often are unsavory. That’s just how it is.
The Homesman isn’t a pleasant watch. It goes to some dark places, many of which you won’t see coming. It’s unpredictable, which is a bonus — Westerns can often be accused of being easy to figure out — but also quite dark, and maybe a bit too cynical for some people. It doesn’t have the most positive outlook on things, and some of the directions it takes reflect that.
You can probably already see where The Homesman can be considered progressive. Its protagonist — at least for the first half or more of the film — is a strong, single, 40-something female. The male is along for the trip. Gender politics don’t need to play a role, but it’s noticeable in this case because of the genre of film this is, and the time period in which it’s taking place. There no doubt were these types of people during this time, but they probably weren’t particularly common and they’re even rarer in the movies.
Is The Homesman particularly enjoyable or entertaining? No to the first, and only somewhat to the second. It works well as a character study on its two protagonists, and it does get more exciting as it progresses. It’s unlikely to often get the heart pumping faster or anything like that, but while it’s bleak, it’s not often dull. There’s usually something important going on, some interesting discussion happening, or at least the actors are all here turning in good performances.
I mean, just listen to this cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, Tim Blake Nelson, William Fichtner, Hailee Steinfeld, James Spader, John Lithgow, and Miranda Otto. That’s … that’s really something. The cast is so impressive that the opening credits list them in alphabetical order. All of them are up to the task. Even the bit players do a good job. The best performances are those in the lead. Swank and Jones are just so good; if the rest of the film sucked, they could carry it on their backs. Luckily, they don’t have to.
The Homesman is a good movie that a lot of people are not going to like watching. It’s bleak, cynical, and not a whole lot of fun, which turns off a lot of people. If you’re one of them, go watch a John Wayne Western instead; they’re more “fun.” The Homesman, by contrast, explores people and takes directions that you might not expect based on its belief about people. Its actors are great, it’s mostly entertaining, and it does a lot that those looking for a deeper and darker Western will want to see.