MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Homesman’ Offers First-Rate Storytelling

Film: The Homesman
Starring: Hillary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones

In a world overrun with over-the-top CGI epics, The Homesman serves as a reminder that sometimes the simplest stories are also the most compelling.

Directed and co-written by Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman tells the story of an unlikely adventure that takes place in 1850s North America. It’s based on the 1988 novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout, which I have never read or even heard of prior to researching this film. I’m all for recognizing the works that films are based upon, but I believe familiarity with a film’s source material should not be a prerequisite to enjoying the final feature. Films should stand on their own as unique pieces of entertainment, regardless of what first inspired their creation, and to its credit, The Homesman does just that. In the span of just over two hours you’re introduced to a wonderfully crafted universe, ripe with original characters, and carried far away from the modern times you find yourself in today.

The story follows a middle-aged spinster by the name of Mary Bee Cuddy (Hillary Swank), a former teacher who left New York in hopes of finding new opportunities in the still young American midwest, and the difficult task she chooses to undertake. After learning about three women in her region who have gone crazy following separate tragic events, Cuddy volunteers to transport the women across the Mississippi River into Iowa where they can be cared for by a preacher and his selfless wife (played by Meryl Streep). The trail is treacherous and barren, littered with outlaws and indians who would likely rape, rob, and/or kill the women at first glance. Not long into their trip, however, Cuddy saves a man who was left for dead (Tommy Lee Jones) and recruits him to help her guarantee the women’s safe passage.

Westerns are becoming a rare treat in the world of modern cinema, but as long as Tommy Lee Jones is working I have faith there will be great stories about the not too distant past worth experiencing. He cemented my belief in this with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada in 2005, and he’s done it yet again with The Homesman. Though the story is not as immediately engaging or compelling as the some of his other directorial efforts, the way the universe is presented to the viewer could not be better. Jones gives you just enough to feel like you know what is going to happen, then delivers surprise after surprise, keeping the viewer on their toes even when the action on screen is incredibly minimal. The wild west was incredibly unkind, especially to those journeying on their own, and that almost constant sense of danger is showcased wonderfully alongside a story unlike anything else offered in theaters this year.

Of course, none of this would be possible if not for the phenomenal performances that hold the film together. The Homesman is littered with award-winning actors delivering performances fitting of their vast trophy collections, though only Swank and Jones have more than a few minutes of screen time. Those making appearances just long enough to leave an impression include John Lithgow, James Spader, Meryl Streep, Tim Blake Nelson, and William Fichtner. Each slips in and out of the film with ease, showcasing their skills just long enough to make you think, “Oh, it’s THAT person!”

Amidst all these big names it may be easy to forget the lesser known names that appear in The Homesman, but their performances demand attention. Grace Gummer, for example, does her best to pluck every one of your heartstrings while portraying a woman driven to insanity following the untimely deaths of her three children. Likewise, Hailee Steinfeld arrives in the third act to appear opposite Jones in a number of important sequences with the poise and skill to match the screen veteran seated at her side.

The biggest complaint to be made about The Homesman is that it has very little to offer those who are not already fans of Westerns. Jones is very much a genre purist, and he does his absolute best to bring the often harsh realities of existence during the mid-1800s to life. This is wonderful news for those of us who wait all year in hopes of big screen stories featuring men and women riding horses with six-shooters drawn, but as it has few commercial elements it’s hard to believe this film – regardless of how great it may be – will cause casual viewers to become Western fanatics.

I don’t think there is anyone who would argue with the idea that Tommy Lee Jones has been working in Hollywood long enough to know what makes a film great, but if there are any outliers still sitting on the fence I believe The Homesman will shut them up for good. Though it lacks the first act strength of Jones’ other directorial efforts, the performances and story are strong enough to minimize the lasting impact of any negative first impression. The Homesman is a truly compelling piece of storytelling, and I urge those who enjoy this genre to seek it out as soon as humanly possible.


Review written by James Shotwell

James Shotwell
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