By Gary Murray
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Hillary Swank and Grace Gummer
Written and directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Running time 122 min
MPAA Rating R
Selig Film Rating Matinee
Tommy Lee Jones is a consummate actor, one who has generated many accolades in Hollywood. Some of his more successful works have been Men in Black, No Country for Old Men and Cobb. Lately, he has also been working behind the camera. His sophomore big screen directing gig is The Homesman.
The story is of Mary Bee Cuddy (Hillary Swank). She is a plain woman with a large ranch in Nebraska. She works hard but has no man to share her land and her life. Hers is a lonely existence. When she put the idea of marriage to a local hand, he rebuffs her because she is not attractive. It is a heartbreaking opening.
George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) is a claim jumper and drifter, a man who tries to take another’s land. At the beginning of the work, he is strung-up, neck in a noose and horse between his legs. He is left to be hanged if the horse moves. Mary comes across George and saves his life. She demands that she now owns his life.
In town, there are three different women; all of whom have gone crazy. Each has lost their children through different means and now are shells of themselves. Life on the range is hard and these city women just couldn’t handle it. It is decided by the town elders that they must be sent back East to get proper treatment. It will be a long and treacherous journey and Mary Bee is selected to do the deed. The three women all wander around more like zombies than people.
Knowing that she will need help, Mary Bee recruits George. He does not want to make the perilous trip but knows that a debt is a debt. He also has been offered a load of cash to accomplish the deed. His greed is stronger than his safety.
The rest of story is of their journey in a prison-style coach back to civilization. They run into Indians, transients, drifters and others who have a different agenda. As the two travel with the three women, they begin to find an understanding between them. The challenge of taking care of the women is compounded by the elements and by people.
This is a brilliant, heartbreaking performance by Hillary Swank. Her character just wants to do the right thing and is stopped by the world over and over again. It is a sad and lonely life and she represents both with a certain calm grace. There is this strong moral streak in doing the right thing, no matter the cost. In the end, she is a fine woman that George finally begins to respect.
As an actor, Tommy Lee Jones has few equals. He knows how to play that gruff, tough and tumble character to a tee. That is the problem. It doesn’t feel like he’s acting. This is the type of character he has played so many times before that it begins to becoming a rote performance. There doesn’t seem to be much of a challenge in the acting.
It is as a director where Tommy Lee Jones shines. He gets emotional performances from his entire cast. No one under his lens is either totally good or totally bad. They are all just people who are trying to survive. In the end, it is one of the more realistic depictions of what the true Old West was like.
There is also this serine beauty that is captured by Mr. Jones in The Homesman. He frames his shots with an artistic touch, using the full image to convey the vastness and desolation of the land. The film has a harsh beauty that becomes a character within the work.
He also fills his film with a great cast in small roles. Meryl Streep, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld and John Lithgow all have small roles in the work. It is as if Tommy Lee Jones has called in every favor in Hollywood to get the right actors for each role. The cast saves this film over and over again.
The Homesman is being placed as Oscar bait, but I do not think that is up to that caliber. It is a good film but not a great one. It is a bit too slow and at the end, the question must be asked—what‘s the point? It seems that the film does not have a reason to be made and the ending leaves much unanswered.