Review: 'The Homesman' – Speaking Softly, Still Signifying Nothing

PT Philben ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Hilary Swank in The Homesman. Photo Credit: Dawn Jones/Roadside Attractions.
Hilary Swank in The Homesman. Photo Credit: Dawn Jones/Roadside Attractions.
The Homesman is a progressive western directed, co-written and starring Tommy Lee Jones. The movie also stars Hilary Swank as the leading lady. The Homesman is one of those films that people praise and adore at the time of its release, largely because they feel obligated to, but that inevitably becomes forgotten as time goes on. Crash, a mediocre, heavy handed and simple minded race commentary drama, would be a good example of this if it wasn’t for how its initial over-praise leading to Oscar success. Thus, cementing its place in movie history as arguably the biggest mistake the Academy ever made. If only this film was as good as Crash, it could ride the pretentious social justice hype all the way to the Oscars.
The story begins with a opening credit sequence that walks the line between an image and blatant ripoff of High Noon, all the way down to an eerily similar score and the wide shots of plains. It’s just in Nebraska this time. All leading into a look into the life of Mary Bee Cuddy, portrayed very well by Swank. Cuddy is an aging spinster. She is a good woman who works hard but she is rejected by men in general because of her looks and her bossiness. Ignoring the many convinces of her circumstances, it is fair to criticize the fact that this is about all we get. She is noble, she is assertive and she is obsessed with getting married. All great qualities in the female lead of what’s supposed to be a feminist film…right?
Long story short (the setup drags); three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) in Cuddy’s small desert town go insane (which is never elaborated on) and Cuddy proves to be the only one who can take them through a long journey to Iowa so that they can be better taken care of. The criminal George Briggs (Jones’s worst performance in years) is blackmailed by Cuddy into aiding in the journey.
Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank in The Homesman. Photo Credit: Dawn Jones/Roadside Attractions.
Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank in The Homesman. Photo Credit: Dawn Jones/Roadside Attractions.
At first these ill women are given very interesting behaviors to go with their madness. One of them, for example, was convinced that she was God and was trying to smite people. After the journey begins this is brought up once more and then totally dropped. The same happens to the other two. They become totally silent and misbehave every once in a while in no way in particular. What was once a goldmine of dramatic material is reduced to three macguffins. In a bizarre Memento style series of flashbacks the women were shown to be insane because of spousal abuse. Putting aside how that’s insultingly oversimplifying of mental illness, what was clearly trying to be a serious feminist message is completely deprived of its power. By the end them being women or even human beings does not make a huge difference since they are reduced to mere plot devices.
There is a twist about two-thirds of the way through this movie and it does highlight a lot of the problems of the movie when you start to think about it. It should be a great twist, it should make you fall backwards in your seat. It should have been a great twist because it has the two essential features required to make a twist good. You don’t see it coming and, in hindsight, it makes perfect sense. The problem? The twist is something that happens to one of the characters that impacts their role through the rest of the film and it would be very emotional if prior events of the film made you care. Many people will eat it up and deem it “brilliant” because of the intent. It is nonetheless guaranteed that no one is going to have the emotional response that Jones was clearly going for because this character was underdeveloped.
Tim Blake Nelson and Tommy Lee Jones in The Homesman. Photo Credit: Dawn Jones/Roadside Attractions.
Tim Blake Nelson and Tommy Lee Jones in The Homesman. Photo Credit: Dawn Jones/Roadside Attractions.
Which character is underdeveloped? Take your pick! Mary Bee was established as sympathetic, but all we ever learn about her motivation is that she has a sense of honor and is eager to get married. These things are both good qualities for a character to have but the story assumes that that is enough. It simply isn’t enough for us to establish a strong emotional connection as opposed to a detached appreciation. Briggs is a strange figure. The story seems to want the audience to believe that he is a genuinely admirable man even though his actions don’t reflect that. Briggs is a very simple man and although he isn’t a monster he is certainly not a good man. And yet the way the story wraps up seems to imply approval of Briggs. Validation that was never quite earned. The three ill women, of course, become less and less interesting as the film goes on.
The reviews and consensus will be in soon, and praise is basically inevitable. There is a certain feeling of obligation because of what the film is trying to do and the very artistic and serious approach it takes. Ten years down the line is a different story and this film will not stick. It is admirable that this film is trying to make a serious commentary about women in society. However the film fails to say anything that needed to be said. Also; the pacing was terrible, the script is impossible to sufficiently criticize in one review, and the characters are completely forgettable in this largely character driven story. There are plenty of things in the film that worked (cinematography, music, acting [mostly], etc) but it isn’t worth going into because of all of its serious and at times even offensive failures. It is in the best interest of film criticism to not give the film an A for effort.
Overall Grade: D+

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