The Homesman

The Homesman

2014, R, 122 min. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, John Lithgow, David Dencik, William Fichtner, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep, Jesse Plemons, Jo Harvey Allen.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 28, 2014

Tommy Lee Jones’ second movie as a director is no conventional Western. Look no further than the direction traveled by the film’s characters – west to east – for confirmation. The Homesman is a story about the human toll of our nation’s westward expansion, about the frontier that cruelly consumed the hopes and sanity of some settlers while at the same time providing freedom and prosperity to others. The American frontier welcomed those looking for opportunities and fresh starts, but not all the pioneers who hitched their wagons to a Western star prospered, though theirs are not the stories generally celebrated in myth and movies. The Homesman literally reverses course to peek at the abandoned ruins of lives lost to the frontier, the human potential plowed over like last year’s crop.

The American frontier could be especially hard on women, and it’s this predicament that confronts a loose community of Nebraska settlers as The Homesman opens. Three wives have lost their minds amid the harsh conditions, and we are shown enough of their plight to grasp their pain. One woman loses three babies in rapid succession to diphtheria, another tosses her newborn down an outhouse commode, and the third is tortured by her husband’s insensitivity and the ghost of her dead mother. Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank), a hard-working frontierswoman, who lives on her own and farms her own land. In an early scene, she proposes matrimony to an unmarried male neighbor – something she depicts as a practical business arrangement, but she is rebuffed for being “bossy and too plain.” Yet when the local church folk charitably decide to send their three crazy women back east to be cared for amid the comparative civilization of Iowa, Mary Bee is the only person who volunteers to take the women on this compassionate but dangerous journey.

With the three madwomen (Gummer, Otto, and Richter) shackled to the walls of a makeshift paddy wagon, Mary Bee seizes on opportunity when she encounters scoundrel George Briggs (Jones) stuck in a life-threatening position, and exacts from him a promise to help escort the women in exchange for saving his life. The two make awkward companions, and for a while their progress is a bit like that of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen as the odd-couple pairing of their characters makes for barbed conversation. The focus of the film is on these two, and their human cargo grows less individuated and more of a mad Greek chorus or team of mythological sirens calling their sister Mary Bee to crash on their rocky shores. The journey is long and arduous, and strays off-track a few times (as in the sequence in which the travelers try to stop for the night at an out-of-place frontier hotel).

Still, Briggs and Cuddy are unforgettable characters. Adapted from the novel by Glendon Swarthout, author of The Shootist and Bless the Beasts & Children, the film will burrow into your flesh like frontier frostbite. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) also underscores the harsh expanse and risks of the wide-open plains. Swank puts her angular toughness to good use, while Jones delivers one of the best crazy-old-coot performances of his career. The Homesman gives us a West devoid of gunslingers and heroes and hearth vs. hunt dynamics, and instead shows us people trying to get through their days alive and sane.

See “Writing the Frontier,” Nov. 28, for an interview with screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Tommy Lee Jones
From the Vaults: Reheating Old Dishes
From the Vaults: Reheating Old Dishes
The studios serve up a sequel and a spinoff for Thanksgiving audiences

Kimberley Jones, Nov. 27, 2014

More Tommy Lee Jones Films
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Tommy Lee Jones has made a modern Western in the culturally askew tradition of Peckinpah, Huston, and Boetticher. Don't let the near-impossible-to-remember title keep you away from this singular and slightly surreal scorcher.

Marjorie Baumgarten, Feb. 24, 2006

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
Joy Ride
Raunchy road trip goes all the way to China for filthy fun

July 7, 2023

All That Breathes
The struggle by three men to save the endangered black kite

March 31, 2023


The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones, Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, John Lithgow, David Dencik, William Fichtner, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep, Jesse Plemons, Jo Harvey Allen

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle