Over his decades-spanning work as one of our finest actors, Tommy Lee Jones has only directed one film -- The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. There had to be something truly special to get him to do it again, and that arrived in the form of Glendon Swarthout’s Western novel The Homesman.
The Homesman tells the tale of a well-ahead-of-her-time woman named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). She lives alone in the Nebraska Territory in the 1800s. Her small town needs some help and she volunteers to lead the way. Three mentally ill women in the community are getting worse and they need to be taken on a dangerous journey to Iowa where they can get the help they need.
Although Cuddy’s farm will be neglected while she is gone, there is truly no one else who can make the journey as residents are struggling to keep their families alive in these rough times. As you see in The Homesman trailer, on the eve of her journey, she comes across George Briggs (Jones), a gruff somewhat typical Old West guy who has a noose around his neck. Death is only waiting for the horse he’s perched upon to move.
In exchange for helping her with the trek, she agrees to cut him down.
It’s not a match made in heaven -- it clearly is a pairing of necessity. But as played by Jones and Swank, we believe that Briggs and Cuddy would come to respect each other and, yes, even depend on each other to get these increasingly more difficult women to where they need to go.
Jones truly gets what an audience would want from a Western, because that’s what The Homesman truly is. He wields his camera expertly and efficiently and sets a pace that is firmly of that time. It is filled with majestic landscapes that are a feast for the eyes and a silence of open spaces that is haunting for the ears.
When there is music (by Marco Beltrami, The Hurt Locker, World War Z), it is sparse and haunting. But, there is also Swank’s singing. The actress nails the part of the character that longs for a more cultured life. We’re not sure what brought her out to the territories, but that’s where we meet her. Cuddy has a passion for music and it shows with her moments of melody that fill the open air with a sense of hope. In Jones’ world, there seems to be not too much of that.
It is understandable why Jones chose the pace he did for The Homesman. Yet, we felt at times the film (both in real time and in plot) moved at the same pace as a wagon crossing the Western landscape. Nothing really happens, at least not often enough to warrant the dramatic weight of the story itself. But, then again, maybe that is exactly the point. It is a simple life and a long journey back in those days would be dull, dry and deliriously slow.
Our The Homesman review just wishes that Jones’ movie was not like that too.