Tommy Lee Jones co-wrote, directs and stars in the dark Western (I love Westerns!) The Homesman. Hilary Swank plays a single woman in bleak frontier Nebraska who volunteers to take three madwomen to respite, a hard five weeks wagon ride to the east in civilized Iowa. She conscripts an irascible reprobate (Tommy Lee Jones) to help her. About Jones’ character, A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote “It’s as if Yosemite Sam had turned up in the pages of a Willa Cather novel.” As in any odyssey or road trip story, they face obstacles that make it an adventure – and, in a Western, we expect those to include harsh natural conditions, hostile Indians and bad gunmen.
Like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, The Homesman doesn’t romanticize the Wild West. The three passengers have suffered mental breakdowns. Each of them has clung to sanity through almost the unbearable hardships of frontier life, and then has been broken by a distinct trauma.
The Homesman has been labeled a “feminist Western”, and this is accurate. Swank’s character is independent, industrious and earnest and responsible to a fault. She’s a great catch for any guy post-1900, but her very independence repels any hope for male companionship in the mid-19th Century Old West, where the local yokels travel all the way Back East for women that are suitably submissive. As to the three broken passengers, really bad things have happened to the women, and the fact that they’ve been isolated with patriarchal and, in some cases abusive, men, has made it that much more unbearable.
Jones directs with a steady hand, and as in his exemplary Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, proves to have a special gift with a western setting and in getting good performances. Here, he and Swank are just as good as we would expect, which is pretty damn good. The cast is dotted by the likes of John Lithgow and even Meryl Streep, but the standout, most memorable performances are the supporting turns by Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader and Hailee Steinfeld.
Unless you’re on a date or looking for an escapist lark, The Homesman is a fine movie on all counts; but be prepared for unrelenting grimness in this starkly, dark tale. It is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.