Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Tim Blake Nelson, David Dencik, John Lithgow, Meryl Streep, James Spader, William Fichtner, Hailee Steinfeld
At this point you would be forgiven for believing the western genre had run out of fresh material, but Tommy Lee Jones' second directorial effort, adapted from a novel by author Glendon Swarthout, features a plot element I don't believe we've seen before. Hundreds of frontier dramas have featured the westward journey of pioneers as they attempt to stake out a new life in America's final frontier; The Homesman turns this idea around, with a storyline that instead features a wagon headed eastward.
Far from a promised land of riches and comfort, the west as seen in Jones' film is, to put it mildly, a hellhole. Here, there really are a million ways to die in the west.
Swank is Mary Bee Cuddy, a prim and proper, yet battle hardened, landowner who has managed to stake a claim for herself in the Nebraskan frontier, but pines for a husband. In the opening scene she proposes to a neighbor who, despite being far from a catch himself, rebukes her, dismissing Cuddy as too bossy and plain for his liking. With no ties, Cuddy finds herself the only one willing to take on the task of transporting three insane women to a Methodist church in far-off Iowa.
All three of the women who make up Cuddy's cargo are victims of the harsh west, driven insane by a combination of abusive spouses and their inability to cope with the untameable nature of their surroundings. Driving them in a wagon across such treacherous terrain is a daunting task for Cuddy, but then she has the dubious fortune of coming across George Briggs, an outlaw left to hang by vigilantes for the crime of trespassing. Briggs is initially reluctant to accompany Cuddy, but the promise of $300 at the end of the line is too much for him to turn down.
Though it's set in the sun blistered American West, there's a Nordic bleakness to The Homesman, as nihilistic a film as we've seen in many a year. Infanticide, suicide and sexual abuse feature heavily, and the killing of a newborn child is without question the most shocking moment of 2014. There are some laughs provided by the relatively happy go lucky George Briggs, but The Homesman makes the most rugged spaghetti western look like Blazing Saddles in comparison.
Jones proves a natural fit for this material, both as actor and director, and Swank seems born to play the strong on the outside, dying on the inside Cuddy. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography will have you gasping for water as it captures the harshness of the arid terrain, and Marco Beltrami provides one of the year's best scores. Western fans will find The Homesman an intriguing addition to the genre, but it may prove a tad sombre for mainstream viewers.
By Eric Hillis