Rated: R for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity. Reviewed by: Jim Release date: November 14, 2014 Released by: Roadside Attractions
A leisurely paced Western road picture (based on a Glendon Swarthout novel; he also wrote The Shootist which was John Wayne's last film) from Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) provides a hardy role for Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) and an interesting, rather authentic angle to the genre (with a pretty impeccable production) when it concerns the austere lot of the distaff circa 1854. One that's averse or sufficient counter programming to the audience geared towards The Farrelly Bros. 'long-awaited' sequel, Dumb and Dumber To.
The Homesman also stars Jones, as well as great veterans like Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, and James Spader, and is driven by character rather than episodic, if later surprising episodic action. Not of the survivalist variety like the work of Kelly Reichardt who's had success with the likes of Michelle Williams.
It's about what Jones's George Briggs and Swank's land wealthy, log-cabin living Mary Bee Cuddy are going through (not just on a temperamental level) on a horse-drawn wagon from the flat Nebraska territory to Iowa with fellow riders, a trio of crazy women. A pilgrimage that is grimly serious, even silly at turns include Theoline Belknapp (Miranda Otto), Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) and Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer, Streep's daughter). Apparently they became this way because of what settlers went through in trying to eke out an existence in a first-come, first-served, free expanse populated by beavers, fur traders, and Indians.
So, three of their members are determined to be dropped back east (actually their former abodes) by Briggs, a claim-jumper saved by the desperate unmarried (she unsuccessfully proposed twice), yet sturdy and independent-minded Mary Bee (considered by at least one man to be bossy and plain as an "old tin can") from a hanging to be an aide. Streep's clergyman's wife is amenable to housing these kooky ladies in Iowa which takes over a month by their means of transportation.
Swank and Jones have a palpable connection as the former is definitely bolstered by the latter, especially from behind the camera from a script he co-wrote to make an intriguing linchpin. But, there's Spader's intractable hotel proprietor Alysius Duffy and Tim Blake Nelson's The Freighter in a dire encounter with Briggs concerning an unbalanced traveler. Our Native Americans appear to be on the take and the reliable Lithgow (who imparts gravity in the cosmological, emotionally ambitious Interstellar) has a pithy, articulate candor as Mary Bee's sagely minister, Reverend Dowd.
If you're looking for explosive blasts or the cavalry to save the day against Indian steely wantonness, there's plenty in the ancillary archives to entertain by way of Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers. But, Jones and his technicians, especially his cast are mindful of a side of our history neglected (done with the same kind of delicacy and deftness that marked Estrada) and vacant to many that ultimately is hardly as plain, but plaintively poignant when it comes Ms. Cuddy and her fellow sojourners.