Judging by outward appearances, Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t seem to be a jolly old fellow. No surprise that Jones has chosen rather dour material for his directorial efforts. His first film as director, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, was a somber modern-day Western about a rancher making his way to Mexico with the corpse of a ranch hand and the Border Agent who killed him. You could hardly call Jones’ sophomore feature, The Homesman, a traditional Western. Sure, the period is appropriate, but white hats don’t shoot it out with black hats and the hero doesn’t triumphantly ride off into the sunset.
The Homesman takes place during the mid-1800’s in the desolate territory now known as Nebraska. Life has been harsh, especially for three women driven insane by the rigors of the frontier and an overbearing patriarchal society. Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) hasn’t even hit her 20’s and has already lost her three children to diphtheria. Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) went mad due to the death of her mother and repeated sexual abuse by her husband. Theoline Bellknapp (Miranda Otto) suffered such a nervous breakdown that she does something unthinkable. In the movie’s most harrowing moment, Theoline stumbles towards an outhouse and tosses her newborn infant into the latrine.
The burgeoning town is hardly equipped to handle this pitiable trio, but a church in Iowa has agreed to care for them. When it’s clear their husbands are either unable or unwilling to take them, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers to embark on the journey. Perhaps, she feels a kinship to these women as she hides her own crushing loneliness. Cuddy is 31 and unwed, making her a spinster in everyone’s eyes. She’s been sharply turned down for marriage because she’s too “bossy” and too “plain.”
As strong-willed as she is, Mary Bee knows she cannot make the trip on her own. Due to happenstance, she comes across George Briggs (Jones), a buffoonish claim jumper left to hang. Briggs agrees not so much out of chivalry, but to get out of the noose along with $300 and a jug of whiskey.
The Homesman was based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, who also wrote The Shootist, which was adapted into a film starring a grizzled John Wayne in what would be his final role. Of course, Jones brings grizzled to a whole new level. He’s not exactly the most amiable of travel partners. The prim and proper Mary Bee does not end up falling for the gruff Briggs the way Katherine Hepburn did with Bogart in The African Queen. In fact, The Homesman never goes where you expect. The protagonists and their charges are outsiders in a rigid culture. They don’t find redemption, happiness or sanity.
Jones turns in a fine performance that goes beyond his trademark surliness. He is able to go to dark place while playing the buffoon. Swank’s success ratio hasn’t been that spectacular, but her work in The Homesman ranks right up there with Million Dollar Baby and her breakout role in Boys Don’t Cry. It’s a fierce and heartbreaking performance. The supporting cast is pretty loaded with James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, John Lithgow, William Fichtner, and Meryl Streep in a third act cameo that threatens to blow everybody out of the water.
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The transfer captures every stunning shot created by the cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto. The image of a burning hotel is particularly striking and calls to mind Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. The high definition picture does wonders for tiny details like the wrinkles in Tommy Lee Jones’ face or the noticeable layer of dust caked across Swank’s face.
The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The sound doesn’t get too rowdy save for a handful of scenes that involve gunfire or physicality. The majority of the film is dialogue driven with some nice ambient effects.
Origins (21:25) looks at the overall production and developing the screenplay.
Shooting the Film (27:18) focuses on rigors of shooting on location in the deserts of New Mexico.
Beyond the Western (11:45) is a featurette in which the cast and crew give their thoughts on the Western genre and whether or not The Homesman qualifies.
Film Value: 8/10
The Homesman has been called an anti-western and a feminist revision of the genre. Jones’ second directorial effort certainly has more in common with the existentialism of McCabe and Mrs. Miller and the beautiful bleakness of No Country for Old Men. He unravels the romanticism of the Old West by presenting its ugliness without restraint. One of the more underrated films of 2014.