Monday, November 24, 2014


It may be fair to say that the Golden Age of the cinematic Western has passed. Studios and filmmakers seem to avoid anything with cowboys, Indians, and six-shooters…and we’re lucky to see two or three films set in the Old West per year. Maybe it’s because the Western has been a tad over-exposed on the big screen in the past 100 years, but that doesn’t mean its potential for good storytelling has also passed. Riding into town to explore that potential is director Tommy Lee Jones and his adaptation of THE HOMESMAN. 

In the Old West, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a fiercely independent frontierswoman, volunteers to take three women who have lost their minds (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter) across the frontier back East to receive proper care. Mary Bee enlists the help of a drifter named George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) to assist her. 

Based on the novel of the same name, THE HOMESMAN is a bit of a twist on the standard Old West tales of families pushing westward across the frontier in search of a new life. Here, the travelers must head back east, facing dangers left and right, while coping with each other in what amounts to a road-trip style movie. THE HOMESMAN goes a bit episodic as Mary Bee, Briggs, and the three insane women encounter dangers such as wild Indians, food shortage, and the harsh weather…along with dealing with each other, but it flows together nicely and makes for some compelling storytelling. Tommy Lee Jones, acting and directing, spends a great deal of time setting up just how hard it was to live and travel in those days…everything from simple cooking or going to the bathroom is explored and there is a tremendous sense of realism wrapped up in legendary Old West storytelling. 

Where THE HOMESMAN beings to go off the trail is with the editing. Some oddball flashbacks appear here and there exploring the episodes of insanity the three women had before being exiled back east. While these flashback episodes are startling and disturbing, they appear in odd places and are very jarring, and they ultimately have no real bearing or impact on anything happening in the present; as viewer you’re patiently waiting for some sort of payoff that never comes. On top of that, there is a mid-movie twist which turns the entire story upside-down which is only about one-half effective. Although the purpose of the incident is clear, it doesn’t make sense at all for the character in the middle of it. Maybe that’s a fault of the novel THE HOMESMAN is adopted from, but the incident is so outside of an established character it makes zero sense. You almost have to wonder if Jones would have been better off ditching the novel and doing his own thing.

There is still a lot to enjoy in THE HOMESMAN.  Jones paints a beautiful looking picture of the Old West and his lens always has something stunning to capture. Jones’ patient nature pays off as things unfold naturally and slowly as they would in those days. 

In front of the camera, Jones is spectacular as the frontiersman who may or may not be all there in the noggin. Hilary Swank is excellent even though her character is a little one-note and doesn’t evolve at all. The real stars of the show are Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, and Sonja Richter…who as the three insane women do some serious emotional and physical work. The rest of the cast pops in and out like extended cameos thanks to the film’s episode-by-episode nature; the appearances by Meryl Streep, Hailee Steinfeld, William Fichtner, John Lithgow, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Corbin, and Evan Jones are all excellent. 

After all the nutball choices in the editing and with the characters, the finale settles down a little bit but then goes weird again, making for a head-scratcher by the time the credits roll around. THE HOMESMAN rides into the sunset strongly with great performances and magnificent visuals, but falls off the horse in the important dismount. 


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