THE HOMESMAN – A Review by John Strange

By: John ’Doc’ Strange
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, David Dencik, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, Evan Jones, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity)
Selig Rating: Full Price
Runtime: 120 Min.
In the early days of westerns movies, the storylines dealt more with a very few scenarios: settlers besieged by evil Indians, evil sutlers taking advantage good Indians, or good cowboys vs bad cowboys.  The truth is that there were as many different stories then as there are today.  There were good men and bad men, good women and bad.  There were men and women who got out west and found that they didn’t have what it takes to survive the brutal cold of winters
The Homesman tells a story that is outside the comfort level of the stereotypical western.  Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a spinster who moved out to the Nebraska territory, leaving her native New York schoolroom, to build a homestead in Nebraska.  To complete her dream she wants, no, that’s not quite right, she needs someone to share her life.  The scenes where she puts her heart on the line to implore a man to join her in her dream are heart-wrenching.
The town is forced to send three young women, Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknapp (Miranda Otto), and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) away for their own good when their souls and their minds snap under the pressure of the brutal winter, diseases that have swept through the region, and sadly, in the case of one, rape.  The men folk responsible for these ladies are asked who will step up and take on the task of delivering the women to a church in Iowa which cares for this type of women. 
Reverend Alfred Dowd (John Lithgow), the protector of the town’s souls is troubled but doesn’t really appear surprised when none of the men step up to take on the responsibility.  He is surprised when Mary Bee steps up and offers to take on the task.  Mary Bee convinces the reverend that she can do it.  Reverend Dowd reluctantly accepts the offer.
Buster Shaver (Barry Corbin) sets Mary Bee up with a wagon capable of transporting the women safely to their destination.  Shortly after leaving town she spots a man strung up for squatting on the claim of another man.  George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) is a ne’er-do-well but he convinces her that he isn’t a killer.  After some spirited negotiations, Mary agrees to pay the man to accompany her.  To ensure he sticks with her for the trip she convinces him that his price has been mailed to the church in Iowa to hold for his arrival.
Their trip is long and difficult.  The perils are sufficient to stop ay sane person yet Mary Bee is determined to battle the elements and anything else that gets in her way, including George.  George, despite his nature, sticks to the agreement and gets the precious cargo to its destination.
This screenplay, adapted from Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel of the same name, is a strong story about the hardships that everyone in the West was forced to endure, especially the women.  Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, and Wesley A. Oliver co-wrote the screenplay. Tommy Lee also wears director and producer hats which give him the chance to craft this story to his conform to his vision of the story. 
His vision of Mary Bee Cuddy as a middle-aged plain spinster who wants to be independent but is so very lonely is a role that was perfect for Hilary Swank to take and make her own.  Her portrayal is so tight that your heart breaks from experiencing her agonizing loneliness as she overcomes obstacle after obstacle on the trip.  .
In the end, George is what he has always been.  Without the steadying influence from Mary Bee and the need to live up to her trust in him, the reprobate reverts to his old ways.  This is perhaps the saddest vision brought to life in the film.  This is not a happy movie.  It is a vision of a truth that was the life led by the pioneers pushing the boundaries of our nation outward in the 1850’s.  I loved the movie.  I think that when the award season announcements are made you are going to see both Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank’s names in the lists for their portrayals of George Briggs and Mary Bee Cuddy.  The team may also see nominations for Tommy’s directing and the writing team for their adaptation of the story.
The Selig Rating Scale:
FULL PRICE – Excellent movie, well worth the price
MATINEE – Good movie
DOLLAR – OK movie
CABLE – No need to rush. Save it for a rainy day.
FREEBIE – Good that I saw it on the big screen but wish I hadn't paid for it.
COMMERCIAL TV – Commercials and cutting to the allotted time will not hurt this one.
FORGET IT! – Bad. If you see this one, do yourself a favor and keep it to yourself.
GET YOUR TORCHES – BAD! – Burn the script, the writer, the director and maybe even the actors!
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