Times were rough when America was just starting out, and Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman (based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout) does not shy away from this fact, but despite the difficult situations The Homesman tackles, it never strips the country of its natural beauty. Bathing each frame in a warm glow of primal golds, The Homesman makes it clear from the start that home and community are what the characters are truly fighting for.
Taking the director’s reins for a second time, Jones delivers a film that is surprisingly beautiful and humorous, but The Homesman falters when it comes to the narrative’s pacing and character development.
Dealing with disease, famine and isolation, it’s not so surprising when three women in a developing town in rural Nebraska start to go mad. Their community and their faith hold them together, so when the town’s reverend (John Lithgow) decides that the women should be returned to their families, that is exactly what is done. But when none of the women’s husbands are up to the task, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) steps in.
In her early thirties, Mary Bee is respected, but looked down upon since she is not yet married. While she has a lot to offer, the men she raises the idea of marriage with turn her down. Mary Bee can plow her own fields, cook and make a welcoming home, but her honest and practical outlook on life may be a bit too direct. (Apparently Type-A women were intimidating and doomed to be alone long before Katherine Heigl took to playing them.)
Swank plays Mary Bee with an unshakable sense of pride and determination, but she also infuses her with true warmth and compassion. She may not be the easiest person to be around, but you know she will always be honest and practical. When Mary Bee comes across a soot-covered man in his long johns with a noose around his neck, she stops to make him a deal. She is happy help him, but only if he will help her in return. Introduced as George Briggs (played by Jones), Mary Bee enlists him to help her deliver these troubled women back to their families.
Jones and Swank have a great chemistry that sparks from this first encounter, but their relationship feels more like that of a father and daughter than a romantic prospect (making a later move in that direction feel forced). Mary Bee can be uptight, making George a perfect (and often funny) foil thanks to his more untethered outlook on life. Jones’ natural demeanor is perfect for the role of a grizzled old cowboy, but for The Homesmans’ George, Jones adds in a bit more humor and goofiness than one may first expect from the craggy veteran.
Since the three women left in Mary Bee’s care – Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto), Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) – refuse to talk, we learn about them through disjointed flashbacks that end up taking you out of the narrative instead of immersing you further in it. It is obvious when we meet each of these women they are dealing with issues well beyond anyone’s control, but it takes away from the impact of their chaotic present when you find out what got them to here.
The idea of setting out on a treacherous journey with three wild cards seems like it would lend to some interesting moments, but instead these three women are almost completely ignored. A too-rare moment when the focus shifts from Mary Bee and George to Theoline and Arabella fighting over a doll only proves that these women do not need to talk to add a fascinating (and needed) layer to the narrative.
The caliber of talent filling even the smallest roles is impressive, including Meryl Streep as a preacher’s wife, James Spader as a rude inn owner, Tim Blake Nelson as a potential kidnapper, William Finchtner and Jesse Plemons as two of the dismayed husbands, and Hailee Steinfeld as a waitress. But these actors’ appearances end up feeling like more of a tease and a distraction when their familiar faces fill the screen for such limited time. Lesser-known actors may have helped by keeping the focus on George instead of what begins to feel like a parade of those Jones knows in real life.
It is clear Jones knows how to direct actors and gets solid performances out of his cast (if limited in most cases), but The Homesman never really settles into a solid rhythm. Thanks to Mary Bee’s insistence on doing things in a quick and timely manner, The Homesman moves along at a crisp pace to start, but after an unexpected character turn (one that is never really supported or hinted at), the film starts to drag when left in George’s less diligent hands.
The fortuitous pairing of Mary Bee and George helps us learn more about these two characters in a way that feels natural as the two share stories over their nightly fire. George even feels comfortable enough (or drunk enough) to break out into a song and dance. A real understanding and admiration starts to develop between them, but once split up, The Homesman starts to feel like a mad caper of a desperate man on the lam (who just happens to have three crazy women with him) and begins to take away from everything the film has built up to until that point. Jones collaboration on the screenplay with writers Karen Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver ticks along well to start, but as the film nears its end, it almost seems like each writer went off on their own and patched their separate ideas together.
Every shot in The Homesman looks beautiful (thanks to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto) and Marco Beltrami’s score is a wonderful throwback to the spaghetti western influence of Ennio Morricone, but with a narrative that seems to get lost half way through and a ruinously false character moment, the experience ends up feeling as mismatched as its main characters.
The Upside: Strong performances from Swank and Jones, well-paced first half, beautifully shot and scored, surprisingly funny.
The Downside: Sudden turn by one of the leads, missed opportunity to focus on some of the film’s more provocative characters, underutilized talent in smaller roles, misuse of flashbacks, pacing drags in second half.
On the Side: Jones’ directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, is available on Netflix.
The Homesman is in limited release November 14th.