Starring: Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones (“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”)
Written by: Tommy Lee Jones (debut) and Kieran Fitzgerald (debut) and Wesley A. Oliver (debut)
Sometimes when I’m watching a movie that I find to be at least somewhat enjoyable, I’ll get a little twinge of delight in knowing that someone else I know personally will enjoy it even more so. As “The Homesman,” directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, unspooled before me, I instantly knew this would be a movie my dad would be fond of: a low-key western with a mildly cantankerous performance from Jones, one of my father’s favorite actors. That a man in his 60s will likely get more from the experience than a man in his 30s will shouldn’t be taken as a slight; it’s just a fact. While the first hour and a half of the film flirts with a revisionist take on the oaters of old, its boots end up firmly planted on more traditional western ground.
A strong, pious woman named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) lives a life alone on her land in a 19th century Midwestern settlement. Cuddy pines for a husband, only to be turned down for being “plain as a tin pail” by one potential suitor. After a harsh winter, three women in the settlement become mentally ill due to various tragedies and need to be taken back east to be put in the care of a pastor and his wife. When none of the men prove worthy enough for the trip, Cuddy volunteers, seeking both adventure and an escape from the loneliness she faces. Along the way she meets George Briggs (Jones) at the end of a noose, left there for claim jumping another man’s land. Cuddy makes a deal with Briggs: she will free him if he will accompany her on her journey, working to keep them safe from Indians and other hazards. George reluctantly agrees, and the party heads off toward the Missouri River.
While both Jones and Swank turn in fine performances, the film features a shocking turn—which I won’t spoil here–that leaves the character arcs of both performers in question and the movie feeling like two different stories hastily hitched together. The strength and tenacity Cuddy exudes early in the film is undone in tragedy, while Briggs’ journey from claim-jumping outlaw to noble man of his word feels somewhat unearned, not to mention some brutal vengeance enacted by Briggs over a minor incident that ends up painting him as a murderous psychopath instead of a protector of broken women. Regardless, I know my dad will get a kick out of the whole thing, and that’s enough for me.