Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Sexual Content, some Disturbing Behavior and Nudity
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
Written by: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley Oliver
(based on the novel THE HOMESMAN by Glendon Swarthout)
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, James Spader, Hailee Steinfield, Tim Blake Nelson & William Fichtner
On paper, THE HOMESMAN sounds like a cinematic recipe for success. This is a dark Western with a cast full of A-list talent and an interesting premise behind it. I was quite excited to watching this promising film and that makes the lackluster end result so much more underwhelming. There are good qualities in HOMESMAN, but the film betrays its characters and wastes a solid period setting. By the time the credits roll, the whole experience feels pointless and dreary.
In pioneer populated Nebraska, three women have gone insane. Mary Bee Cuddy is a spinster (woman past the typical age of marriage) with an independent attitude. She bravely volunteers to take the three crazy women to Iowa, in spite of scorn from those around her. Before Mary can begin her journey, she comes across George Briggs, a claim jumper about to be hanged. Mary frees George in exchange for his services in aiding her journey. The territory is filled with bandits, harsh elements, and Indians. George and Mary must face overwhelming odds to get these three mentally damaged women to safety…as well as themselves.
Tommy Lee Jones directs, co-writes, and acts in this Western. He pulls off the role of George with a passable performance. Jones doesn’t necessarily make this character his own though. This “bad man with a good heart” type of character is a familiar stereotype. Hilary Swank is another story. She seems to be trying way too hard as Mary. When she says certain comic relief lines, they feel stiff and lifeless. However, when she tries to be deadly serious (including an over-the-top bit of sobbing), she becomes unintentionally laughable and not convincing in the slightest. James Spader is a welcomed presence, but barely has any screen time. Tim Blake Nelson also seems suited to his one-scene scumbag, but comes off as wildly cartoonish…again, eliciting unintentional laughs from a scene that should be intense. Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, and William Fichtner are forgettable as brief side characters. Meanwhile, the crazy women themselves aren’t given enough personality to resemble actual people as opposed to human cargo.
In spite of all the flaws, THE HOMESMAN gets a couple of things right. The music is good, as in it feels like it belongs to a far better film. There is also attention to details of the time period that can be cool, though the overall production values resemble a made-for-TV movie. Aside from mixed acting and so-so technical work, THE HOMESMAN really drops the ball in the screenplay department. The script is based on a 1988 novel that I haven’t read, but this plot feels very disjointed and muddled. There is a character decision about halfway through that betrayed everything that was shown up until that point. There’s also a nasty streak of the story being dark merely for the sake of being dark. We already understand that the Old West was a dangerous and rough time, but this film feels the need to do things just for unnecessary shock value. This is especially notable in James Spader’s sleazy character. He’s one of the best things about this movie, but his scenes feel like they were only added for edginess and pointless violence.
Westerns are a tough sell, especially in this day and age. I appreciate certain aspects about THE HOMESMAN, including a few well-executed scenes, a solid soundtrack, and two good performances. However, I can’t help but be let down by the forced bleakness (which didn’t add much to the story), an overall unfocused narrative, and poor performances that seemed as if everyone is trying too hard to sell themselves in a role as opposed to bringing an actual character to life. THE HOMESMAN is disappointing to say the least.