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Review: The Homesman (2014)

The Homesman (2014)

Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones

Premise: Set during the frontier days, an independent-minded single woman (Hilary Swank) and a drifter (Tommy Lee Jones) must escort three insane women from the Nebraska territory to an Iowa town.

What Works: The western was once a cornerstone of Hollywood’s output but since the mid-1960s the genre has been on the outs. In the past few years there has been a quiet revival of the western genre; these films have had limited theatrical releases, if any, but they have been very impressive. This happens with certain genres; they go out of fashion and so the only people still working in them have a passion for these stories and understand what they represent. This minor revival of the western has resulted in impressive titles such as The Proposition, Appaloosa, Hatfields & McCoys, and True Grit. 2014’s The Homesman is another impressive entry in the genre and like some of these other titles, the movie is made in a way that twists some of the conventions of the western and reverses the audience’s expectations. The movie opens in a small community in the Nebraska territory and the life depicted here is as far from Little House on the Prairie as it could be. The land is desolate and harsh, far from the nurturing and redemptive vision of the west, and the people aren’t terribly good citizens. The rigors of frontier life have driven three young women mad, although it is later revealed that more is at play in the women’s mental state, and the locals are called to escort these women to a town in Iowa where they can be looked after. Reversing the traditional gender politics of the western, the men shirk their duty and so it falls to an unwed woman, played by Hilary Swank, to escort these frontier wives to their new home. Swank’s character recruits a drifter, played by Tommy Lee Jones, to help her on the expedition and the five set out across the landscape. Their journey is fraught with danger but what is most perilous is not the Native Americans or other threats of violence but the punishing blandness of the land. The Homesman takes on the expectations and conventions of the western and deliberately thwarts the genre’s meanings. The allure of the western frontier, in its historical context and in its traditional cinematic presentation, has been the possibility of new beginnings, bright futures, and redemption. The Homesman undermines all this and the soul crushing weight is felt in the central performances. Hilary Swank is terrific as a strong-willed woman who finds her confidence shaken by the callousness of the wild and Tommy Lee Jones plays a sloppier but more complex character than he usually does. The three mad women are played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter and each of them has a distinct psychosis; none of them vocalize very much but each of the actresses creates a distinct character through the nonverbal aspects of their performances.

What Doesn’t: The Homesman is a movie that seems both old and new. The film recalls the westerns of the genre’s heyday in that the story is told in the slower pace of films from an earlier era. But at the same time it does not have the upbeat tone that made the classic westerns so popular. As a result, The Homesman may have trouble finding an audience. It is perhaps a little too slow paced for younger audiences but the west of The Homesman is a darker and more cynical place than older viewers will remember from the movies of their youth. The Homesman is a movie made for aficionados of the western genre and they will recognize what is interesting about the movie. But like its landscape, The Homesman is harsh and sometimes unpleasant and cruel. Those qualities are to the film’s credit but they are bound to limit the movie’s appeal.

DVD extras: Featurettes.

Bottom Line: The Homesman is a fine western that challenges the way movies have typically imagined frontier life. It is not necessarily the movie that audiences may expect it to be but that is to the film’s credit.

Episode: #560 (September 20, 2015)