At first glance the only thing setting The Homesman apart from every other Western out there are the names attached and the premise. With an incredible cast led by gruff icon Tommy Lee Jones and one of the strongest actresses of the past decade (Hilary Swank), the story about the transportation of three mentally disturbed women across the final rough terrains of the American old west sounds like a fresh and enticing take on an old genre. At first The Homesman delivers exactly this but as events proceed it soon becomes evident that there is more going on beneath the surface. This subtext, though, is at best entirely lacking in gratification and at worst purposefully uncharacteristic.
The Homesman marks Tommy Lee Jones’ second cinematic outing as a director (his fourth directing gig overall). His first feature to hit the silver screen, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, was also a Western and in this latest film Jones again shows a sure hand at capturing the essence of the frontier. The barren vistas and the towns made up of kindling shacks or antiquated rock constructs are captured with enough confidence to stand up against the work of an Eastwood or a Leone. Similarly, day to day life is portrayed with a prevalence of focus on detail. When introduced, Mary B. Cuddy (Swank) is entirely believable as we see how she gets by as a single woman in a man’s world so it is no stretch of the imagination that she winds up being tasked with the protection of the three incompetent women. Nor does it take long to see why anyone would want George Briggs (Jones), his demeanour alone does a good job of giving us a character that we might not be able to relate to but can at least accept. And so it remains Cuddy is feted to rescue a stranded hanging Briggs, enlisting him to help herd her cargo over state lines in spite of dangers along the way.
Where The Homesman fails is easy to point out because approximately two thirds into the movie just about every character ceases to be in any way consistent. Suddenly every choice made is entirely against character and contrary to the journey the individual has been on for the preceeding hour. There’s no satisfying arc to explain this because there isn’t an arc present to be satisfying. All of a sudden the strong become weak and the weak become strong and although certain plot developments might exist to inform these changes, those changes are never actually presented on the screen and every decision seems immediately alien.
In the space of five minutes The Homesman goes from being a solid and unique western to a dissociative narrative mess. Any sense of logic or credibility is lost and the pathos that The Homesman tries to present in its climax and conclusion ultimately feels entirely unearned, nihilistic and ugly. After two thirds of the feature building up a character focused and intelligently engaging yarn, this revelation comes off as more of a cheat than any sort of subversive portrait of American culture of the era. In the end The Homesman‘s earlier ruminations are abandoned in order to wallow in a sad pathetic state and if nothing else it’s bringing the audience with it, much like Cuddy, Briggs and their three confused, angry passengers.
Though The Homesman boasts great performances, the characters themselves are never shown advancing in any way that justifies their actions and an entirely despondent third act does a good job of diminishing all of the good work of what had the potential to be the finest western in years.
The Homesman is out now in cinemas everywhere.