As the star and director of The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones seems to be fashioning himself as another actor-turned-director in the vein of Clint Eastwood. Both share a fascination with the cowboy archetype and tell stories in grim, matter-of-fact ways, encouraging understated performances and thematically punishing any characters that dare to rise above the grimly punishing landscape of the frontier. And for as much as Jones’s film seems to want to emulate Eastwood’s trademark style, he can’t quite manage to make his film much more than a nihilistic interpretation of the tragedies that marred frontier life. That works just fine for the film’s purposes, but it certainly doesn’t place in on the same tier as his obvious chief inspiration.
The film opens with spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), who eventually agrees to take three disturbed women on a five week journey to Iowa so that they may be institutionalized. These three women have all lost their sanity due to the hardships they have faced on the frontier, whether it be losing one’s children to disease, killing one’s own child, or rape. As Cuddy prepares for her journey, she meets a man about to be hanged, who calls himself George Briggs even though he admits that is not his real name (Tommy Lee Jones). She enlists his help in exchange for cutting down his noose and a payment upon delivery of the women, and the two set out with their charges across the lonely wasteland of the American West.
The primary conflict revolves around Cuddy’s difficulty in coping with the madness of her charges, and ultimately seeing how her own isolation has brought about a similar madness in her. It’s powerful and engaging material, and Swank pulls it off with gusto, using the gruff yet goofy foil of Jones’s Briggs to make her plight seem all the more tragic. Granted, there are certainly undertones that Cuddy and her charges are in need of a strong masculine presence to stabilize them, but then again, many of their hardships are brought about by the common, less-than-noble men who dominated their lives in the first place, so the thematic feminism of the film comes out as a bit of a wash.
But then, about halfway through the film, the narrative focus shifts to Briggs, leaving Cuddy’s storyline anticlimactically resolved. And then, as the film reaches its final moments, you realize that the finale is going to place Briggs in a similarly anticlimactic position. The film is rich with themes and motifs, the latter half consumed with Briggs’s realization of his own more compassionate nature, but whenever the film comes close to completing a character arc or providing a bit of closure, the rug is pulled out from under us and we’re left with a nihilistic notion that life on the frontier just sucked. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the film feel a bit pretentious in its motives, as if to say that noticing the thematic depth of the picture is worthless because real life carries no thematic weight.
All in all, though, The Homesman is a pretty decent movie. The lead performances from Swank and Jones really make their characters enjoyable to watch, particularly considering that Jones steps out of his usual father figure persona and makes Briggs equal parts loveable and selfish. However, for a film that is so convicted to be about nothing, it populates its runtime with enough pointless symbolism to make a freshman film student weep. Watch it for the story and the performances, but don’t expect it to amount to more than the sum of its parts.
Does Tommy Lee Jones have what it takes to follow in Clint Eastwood’s footstep as a director? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.