The Homesman is mounted with a dignity of manner –it’s impressively staged, scored, and shot –but it’s forced to haul an incomplete story fixed to overly deliberate pacing. Taken from Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel of the same name, The Homesman lays out a narrative tract faithful to the source material, yet it never sows the seeds within. The film dutifully charts out the novel’s events, though without giving life and urgency to the underlying themes.
And that’s a shame because I enjoyed the other movies Tommy Lee Jones directed, like The Sunset Limited and The Three Burials of the Melquiades Estrada. The Homesman, in a way, combines elements of those two works. On one level, Jones relocates the theatricality of The Sunset Limited from Cormac McCarthy’s one-room apartment to the bleak vastness of the Western desert, while still honing in on the relationship of two very differently opinionated characters. Like The Three Burials, this film is about an American’s existential instinct to make ends meet, right wrong, and carry out a sacred ritual.
The ritual in this film involves a 1700-mile trek across treacherous desert to rescue three women from hardship. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a spinster from a small farming town in Nebraska, is tasked to carry out this mission and take the women to sanctuary in Iowa. Mary, never experiencing marriage and weary of her isolated farm life, willingly accepts this assignment in spite of the skepticism of her pastor father (John Lithgow).
Shortly after Mary sets out via horse-drawn carriage, she stumbles upon a miscreant named George Briggs (Jones), hanging from a noose after being lynched for squatting on private property. Mary cuts him loose with the condition that Briggs helps her in this journey. Not exactly dead weight, Briggs may be a Walter Brennan character –hence, a buffoon –yet he retains a horse sense about surviving the desert and negotiating with hostile Indians out to rob them of everything, including their life.
From here, The Homesman should take off. The Stagecoach plot is present; the experienced actors are in position. Plus you have Rodrigo Prieto’s wide, classical cinematography evoking the landscapes of 1950s John Ford movies. Their immutable beauty, and endless sprawl that stretches far beyond the horizon and seemingly slices through the sun. Yet, even with those desirable elements, The Homesman plods into obscurity. The first act’s themes from the importance of civility to overcoming societal pressures become a faint, halfhearted flicker in the skyline as the narrative broadens into a ho-hum series of talky interactions.
Excessively literary, The Homesman never achieves full cinematic momentum. It’s too episodic, too precious with its mature intentions that the pacing feels too leisurely to immerse the viewer in an inspiring way. There are cameos from Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, Meryl Streep, and Hailee Steinfeld, who are on point, but possibly a bit too distracting given how the rest of Jones’ production eschews showiness.
There is nothing in The Homesman one can really hate. At the same time, there’s very little to truly love. While the halfway mark introduces an admittedly unexpected twist that alters the emphasis of the story, it doesn’t resonate. We’re not emotionally convinced to reflect, unlike what the Coen Brothers achieved (with similar framing, mind you: the “new protagonist”drifting off into the distance) in that beautiful symbolic final shot in True Grit.
It works in theory, but as a moving, breathing film it reaps very little returns for the audience.It’s short on payoff for a 122 minute investment. Unsurprisingly, Jones is skilled with actors, but he leaves the three endangered women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) out to dry, making them empty vessels of hysteria and never allowing a moment to subtly provide viewers with insight into their background or trauma. They only come off as screaming, wailing, squirming mental cases – not a humanist depiction, to say the least.
That’s one of the weakest aspects of The Homesman, and it could perhaps indicate why so many other elements of the story don’t fully register. Jones creates a refined spectacle and a story that at least initially knows what it wants to be. But as the journey unfolds, we sense the stakes and complexity wearing thin. The Homesman is a disappointment, mainly because it’s born from such great potential.