Americans are taught early on in school that frontier life is hard, but we rarely get evidence of this. It is a portion of history that is either forgotten or romanticized. Few westerns attempt to the deal with the reality of the frontier. There's a reason for this: watching an Old West shootout is more entertaining than seeing miserable things happen to miserable people. The Homesman tackles the miserable life of the frontier, arguably to a fault.
The Homesman takes place in the 1850s in Nebraska (not technically the West, but calling the film a midwestern instead of a western sounds kind of silly) in a small farming community on the frontier. Three local wives show signs of insanity due to the brutal living conditions; disease, isolationism, death, abusive husbands, etc. It is decided to send the women back East so they can return home, but none of the husbands are up to the task. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers to take them. Single and recently rejected by a prospective husband, Cuddy appears to be a very resilient woman. Still, when she comes across condemned claim jumper George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), she enlists him to help her on the journey.
It is a story filled with characters that are either miserable or evil. There is very little hope in this film, which may turn some off from it. But Tommy Lee Jones is a filmmaker that shouldn't be ignored. His previous big screen directing effort, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, was one of the year's best films and showed that Jones knows what to do when it comes to films set in desolate locales. Three Burials featured quite a bit of dark comedy, however, which made it easier to get through. There is little humor found in The Homesman. In fact, The Homesman is possibly the bleakest film of the year.
If you can get past the depressing aspect of the film, there are plenty of positive aspects to the film. First off, the performances are all top notch, if familiar. Swank can play the role of a tough, independent woman in her sleep at this point, but that doesn't mean it's not impressive. Likewise, Jones can play a cantankerous misanthrope with no effort, but it's still fun to watch at times. Jones and Swank do play off each other nicely, and their back-and-forth almost makes the film appear lighthearted at times (key word: almost). The strong supporting cast, including Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, does a fine job in small roles. And Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter portray the afflicted women with disturbing effect.
The film also looks great. The production value is superb, and all of the location provide a beautiful landscape that is a nice contrast to the terrible events of the film. The score, reminiscent of the beginning of There Will Be Blood completes the mood of the film.
The Homesman also stands out by featuring story elements that may surprise the audience. I know that it took me by surprise a few times. I enjoy the western genre, but it can be predictable. The Homesman is certainly not predictable, which is a rare treat in film today. Wondering how it was all going to end made it easier to get through. Whereas if it followed a more traditional route, I might have been tempted to stop watching.
Any fans of westerns should check out The Homesman. It isn't your traditional western, but it's worth seeing just to get a different view of the era. Realism in a western is something to be treasured. Unforgiven, for instance, was a great western that was largely a statement about how romanticized westerns had become. The Homesman is nowhere near the level of Unforgiven, but it is still worth watching. It is a little hard to get through, but that's the point.
The Homesman receives a: