Homesman, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/21/14 13:37:42

"And You Thought "A Million Way To Die In The Old West" Was Depressing. . ."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Yes, "The Homesman," the second directorial effort from beloved actor/sourpuss emeritus Tommy Lee Jones, is a western but do not be fooled for a second by the mistaken belief that this is a film filled with either the usual excitement and heroics of the classics of the genre or the more ambiguous takes of the revisionist efforts that took their place as the genre as a whole was fading from popularity in the 1970's. This is, in fact, one of the bleakest and most despairing films of any sort to hit theaters this year and while this is not necessarily a problem per se, it is so painful and wounding to observe that even those with a fondness for darker narratives may be surprised by just how grim things get. Put it this way--Jones' previous directorial effort, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" was a modern-day western involving digging up a corpse and carrying it across the border into Mexico for a proper burial and that was a breezy walk through the park when compared to this one.

In a remote and unforgiving area of the Nebraska territory, a combination of personal tragedy and the harsh circumstances have driven three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) mad and the decision is made to transport them back to civilization so that they can be properly cared for in a sanitarium. Volunteering to take them back via covered wagon is Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a resilient woman whose headstrong and determined nature has more or less made her a social pariah. She still needs help to make the arduous journey and she finds it in George Briggs (Jones), an ornery claim jumper whom she literally rescues from a hangman's noose. With no other choice or prospects, Briggs agrees to help and the group sets off on the rough and perilous trip in which they encounter bad weather, Indians and other obstacles along the way. At this point, you may think that you have a pretty good fix on where this story is heading but at the risk of sounding presumptuous, let me tell you right now that you are wrong.

I have seen many westerns over the years but I cannot easily recall one quite like "The Horseman." This is a grim and unsparing story that contains some horrifying imagery and at least one plot development that will almost certainly knock most viewers for a loop--at least those that did not read the 1988 novel that the film is based on--and which is presumably a key reason as to why the film is not receiving a bigger distribution at this time. And yet, the dark and unsparing nature of the story is a change of pace from what the genre usually has to offer and it adds a layer of authenticity to the film as a whole that is undeniably refreshing--my guess is that this probably comes a lot closer to depicting what life was really like for people trying to make a life for themselves in the territories back then. At the same time, there is also a certain degree of dark humor to the proceedings as well (mostly supplied by Jones' character) that helps to make things a little more bearable and even the occasional bit of formal beauty for good measure (especially in the hypnotic final shot).

Like many actors-turned-directors, Jones is generous towards his actors and is more interested in the pyrotechnics that they spark amongst each other than in the usual gunfights and explosions. As Mary, Hilary Swank gets the best role that she has had in years--one that expertly plays to her ability to convincingly come across as both tough and vulnerable--and she and Jones make for an enormously winning pair without ever coming across as being too cutesy or contrived for their own good. As the three afflicted women, Gummer, Richter and Otto are each necessarily playing one note throughout but they are fearsomely convincing as people who have just been crushed by circumstances to the point where there is literally nothing left to them. As for the supporting cast, Jones has been able to rope in a number of strong actors to pop up for a scene or two (including Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Hailee Steinfeld and James Spader) and while their turns may be brief, each one makes a vivid impression with Spader stealing the show as an oily hotelier who turns away the wagon and lives, however briefly, to regret it.

Make no mistake about it, "The Homesman" is grim going indeed--there are scenes here that suggest what might have resulted if Michael Haneke had decided to do a western--and anyone looking for a simple and unabashed good time at the movies and nothing more might want to consider giving it a pass. However, anyone who is willing to sacrifice a certain level of cheerfulness for strong acting, a unique storyline and strong, sure direction should consider giving it a shot. I can't exactly say that I enjoyed the film per se but I admire the hell out of it and, provided that you are in the proper frame of mind, there is a very good chance that you may as well.

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