Review: “The Homesman” Aims To Showcase The Lives Of Woman And Gets Distracted By Tommy Lee Jones
Title: The Homesman
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Screenwriter: Tommy Lee Jones (screenplay), Kieran Fitzgerald (screenplay), Wesley A. Oliver (screenplay), and Glendon Swarthout (novel)
Principal Cast (voices): Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Grace Gummer, James Spader, and Meryl Streep
There are times that defining a piece of media by its genre can be detrimental. There are times that the entire purpose of a piece of media is to subvert the genre that it resides. However, there are some genres where the definition gives you a better idea of what to expect. If a movie is being billed as a “romance”, then you know what you’re going to get. That doesn’t mean that all horror movies are going to be the same, but it does help you decide if a movie is going to be something you’ll like. The Western is a genre that is not as common as it used to be, and because of that sometimes people go into Westerns with the wrong expectations. I truly believe a little background knowledge on the genre will determine whether or not someone will enjoy The Homesman.
The Homesman has a haunting soundtrack and a terrific cast, but a story that is supposed to be about the lives of women seems to be supplanted by Tommy Lee Jones’ George Briggs.
Our story takes place in the American Midwest in the 1850’s. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a former schoolteacher who moved from New York to Nebraska. She has financial stability and a fair amount of land, but suffers from the isolation that comes from being too independent for men of that time. When she proposes to a local man he turns her down because of her looks, which deepens Mary’s sense of depression. Three local women, Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto), and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) begin to show signs of insanity after a bad winter, and various terrible things happen to them. The town decides to take the women to Iowa in a covered wagon to a home that can help them, and when no one else will volunteer Mary offers to go. Along the way she picks up George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a drifter, who reluctantly agrees to assist her on the long journey.
One of the main things that defines the Western is a much slower pace than most movie goers are used to. This is something that a lot of audiences discovered when they went to see Django Unchained several years ago. The Homesman might not take place in the West, but it is paced like one. The movie moves at a steady pace, but it is very slow and, in a way, not much actually happens. This is a story about a journey in both the physical and mental sense. The trailers show a few things like approaching hostile Indians or Briggs riding away from a burning down building, but that isn’t the movie. Most of this movie is watching Mary and Briggs travel across empty scenery as they try to transport three women who have lost their minds.
The theme of mental illness and the lives of pioneer women are constant throughout the film, but it’s really the mental illness that truly shines through, while the latter gets buried beneath Jones’ Briggs. As someone who has struggled with depression and who has a family that has a history of mental illness, I felt like the portrayal of Arabelle, Theoline, Gro, and, to an extent, Mary were perfect. The women don’t spend the entire movie screaming or running around. Gro is the most violent and when she gets away from her husband she calms down considerably. Mental illness isn’t loud like it is sometimes portrayed in media but very quiet. It’s Arabelle staring lovingly at the doll in her hands while being incapable of standing on her own. Or Theoline as she lies in bed unable to care for her children. Or Mary as she tries not to be consumed by loneliness.
Swank does a wonderful job of portraying this, and I found her extremely sympathetic to watch. When people kept telling her she was “plain” I found it nearly laughable. As the three women who are being transported seem to almost get a little better as the journey continues, we watch as Cuddy slowly seems to get worse. Swank is terrific in the role and she deserves all of the praise that she is getting.
However, a movie that is supposed to be about women seems to focus far too much on Tommy Lee Jones as Briggs. Briggs is about as stock of a character as you can get with a Western. He has little in the ways of morals and only cares about the money that Cuddy has promised him at the end of the journey. I don’t want to say he hurts the movie, really, because the performance is great, but as soon as he turned up on screen I felt like the focus left Cuddy and their three patients. I actually found the three women to be the most compelling part of the movie and I wish it had focused more on them and less on Briggs. He goes through the same redemption story that all drifters seem to go through in this scenario which is “I’m only here because of the money; no, wait, now I’m here because I care”. I do have to say that the thing that makes Briggs realize that he does care was not what I was expecting, but he still takes too much of the focus from Cuddy and the three women.
I’m not sure what I think about Jones as a director. He doesn’t do a bad job and he has a great sense of space that helps emphasize the emptiness that comes with this area of the country, but I also felt like there wasn’t anything to really set the film apart from any other character-focused Westerns. The music by Marco Beltrami, however, was the thing that stood out the most for me. There is constant gusting wind that hums over the entire movie. It’s something that the early settlers in the midwest would have had to listen to with their limited shelter and it helps emphasize the feeling of loneliness and isolation that hovers over the entire production.
The Homesman seems to have started out with the intention of showing the often overlooked lives of women during this time period, but loses its focus as soon as Jones enters the production. However, its portrayal of mental illness is one of the more accurate and compelling takes that I’ve seen in a long time. If you enjoy Westerns and slow character pieces then The Homeman is worth a look; otherwise wait until it turns up on Netflix.