Few will regret having seen The Homesman, and yet it's not exactly an enjoyable experience. The film occupies that peculiar space that many of us would prefer to believe doesn't exist, a movie that's worthy but often inert, by turns enriching and enervating: A good boring movie.
There are a handful of brilliant scenes, interspersed by stretches that plod along in a dutiful way. But unlike 90 percent of movies, this one gets better as it goes along, and by the time it's over, there's a feeling of arrival. It's hard to imagine anyone volunteering to sit through Homesman twice, but it's far from a waste of time. It leaves audiences with a mood and a vision of the Old West that's different from the usual, and that rings true.
The phrase "feminist western" has been thrown around with regard to the film. Better to say The Homesman, based on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, is concerned with the struggles of women in the West. Just imagine living in a world in which every man is filthy, half drunk and brutalized by hard living, where even the biggest idiot considers himself superior to every woman he sees. Just imagine being a woman in that world. Now imagine living in that world alone.
Hilary Swank plays Mary, a resourceful landowner and respected member of the community, who gets along fine on her own but would really like to have a husband. But every man she meets lets her know how ugly and bossy she is. Mary is not considered a catch, but when someone is needed for a necessary and dangerous job, the community turns to her.
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Most of The Homesman tells the story of a journey. In Mary's Nebraska community, three women have gone mad, either from grief or the strain of living in silence and desolation, and Mary volunteers for the assignment that no one else wants, to take these women back to Iowa to be reunited with their families. That means driving them in a coach pulled by mules for over five weeks, passing through Indian country.
Mary has the quality of someone pretending at a strength and a self-sufficiency that she doesn't quite possess, but hopes to find. This is not a role for Barbara Stanwyck but for someone who'd like to be Barbara Stanwyck and can't manage it.
Fortunately, just as she is about to leave on her journey, Mary teams up with Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a claim jumper and good for nothing, who ends up owing her a favor. He agrees to accompany her and off they go, slowly, the mules and the cart taking baby steps across the American vastness.
As a director, one thing can be said for sure about Tommy Lee Jones: He knows Tommy Lee Jones. He doesn't hand himself the picture. He doesn't fall in love with his own image. Just on the basis of the movie, you would not guess that he directed it. But he gives himself moments that showcase what he does best. Sometimes he just grunts a word or two and yet suggests, in that moment, an acceptance of life as it is. In another scene, he'll tell a story, and the sheer musicality of his voice and speech commands the screen.
And that's how it is, for a little over two hours. The good is very good, but there's a lot of riding in that wagon through a lot of nothing, without much at stake from the audience's perspective: The women being transported are so crazy that it hardly seems to matter whether they're in Nebraska or Iowa. If we can't tell, neither can they.