fri 21/06/2024

The Homesman | reviews, news & interviews

The Homesman

The Homesman

Tommy Lee Jones' sophomore directorial effort is an elegiac and eccentric western

A woman pining for a suitor becomes a saviour: Hilary Swank in 'The Homesman'

Taking inspiration from classic westerns even as it vigorously sets itself apart, The Homesman combines the taciturn and muscular with a feminist bent, and manages to be stirring and sweeping while also embracing the odd. It's a gorgeous, painfully sad tale of a man who's been nothing but a disappointment to himself and a woman constantly disappointed by others who, together, shepherd three lost souls on a desperately treacherous journey.

This is the second directorial effort from actor Tommy Lee Jones who once again shows a keen grasp of the genre (his first film was also a western, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada).

Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, the film introduces us to capable, no-nonsense pioneer Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a 31-year-old woman, well liked in her community but troubled by her spinsterhood and who's begun to scrape the barrel in her search for a suitor. When three local women lose their minds she sets out from the Nebraska Territory to Iowa to deliver them into the care of Altha Carter (Meryl Streep), the kindly wife of a preacher. As she prepares to head off Mary runs into George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones, pictured below right), a grizzled, sozzled claim jumper who has been strung up by vigilantes and whose life she saves in return for his assistance.

The Homesman doesn't mince its words nor its actions. We see a baby being slung into a toilet and Mary is told that her journey will be "long, difficult and dangerous". Strange and striking scenes of the women's madness setting in disrupt the early part of the narrative in a way that's both disconcerting and moving. Insanity seems to blow in across the plains, infecting these women, and we see in them three very different manifestations of madness. For example, Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer, Streep's daughter) is rendered catatonic after the death of her three young children in quick succession, whereas Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter), a woman repeatedly raped by her husband, ends up a violent, snaring animal.

It's an idiosyncratic, sometimes shocking story told with care, authenticity

As well as directing and starring, Jones pens the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A Oliver; the trio strike a fine balance between the poetically ruminative and the brutally matter-of-fact. Jones has made an extremely courageous, uncommercial picture which foregrounds female courage and doesn't shy from showing the cruelty inflicted on women at the hands of men, as well as the tragic limits of their endurance. Our heroine Mary is told that she's "as good a man as any man hereabouts" and, given that those we meet are all cowards, bastards and wastrels, we are shown that she's in fact much better.

Swank has carved herself a niche as Hollywood's least glamorous leading lady in films such as Boys Don't Cry, Million Dollar Baby and Insomnia, despite being every bit as stunning as her peers. Although her commitment to her craft is to be applauded she's never going to sit right as a character repeatedly described as plain. That aside, her work here is exemplary and she's ably supported by Jones, with the pair making for a curiously affecting odd couple.

There are shades of Rooster Cogburn in the crotchety old git and bossy bird combo and of The Searchers in the elegantly shot quest film. The Homesman perfectly combines Hollywood beauty with the uncanny - as well as an uncomfortable measure of the inconvenient truth - and features magnificent work from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (The Wolf of Wall Street, Argo, Amores Perros). It's an idiosyncratic, sometimes shocking story told with care, authenticity and appropriately enough, true grit.


Jones has made an extremely courageous, uncommercial picture which foregrounds female courage


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters