Review: The Homesman

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

When three of the townswomen are driven to the brink of insanity, a respected and middle-aged maiden by the name of Mary Bee Cuddy offers to help. The lonely but religiously devout woman sets off on a journey across the country to bring the women to a minister for help. On her travels she runs into a ne’er-do-well stranger whom she convinces to help her on the long road she and the three women face ahead.

THE HOMESMAN is a Tommy Lee Jones western in every way. As the film’s director, co-writer, executive producer and lead actor, he has taken on a project that is seemingly a labor of love. And while it begins as a very straightforward tale set in the Wild West, it becomes a surprisingly quirky and often preposterous experience. There are moments of brilliance, as well as jaw-drop worthy sequences that are nearly as mad as the insane women characters that Hilary Swank is taking to find help. Even the end credit sequence is downright bizarre and one can only wonder what emotion Jones was trying to provoke in the film’s final moments.

The story begins with plain and proper Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), an older and single woman looking for companionship. When she offers up a dinner and song to a neighbor by the name of Bob (Evan Jones), she decides it would be the ideal time for the two to marry. Bob leaves quickly saying he will never marry someone as plain and bossy as she is. Alas, she remains alone without a man to warm her bed. Yet she soon finds a calling when three of the townswomen seem to be suffering from a bit of insanity. She offers her services to transport the ladies by covered wagon across the country to seek help from a minister.

While on her journey she reluctantly saves the wild and opportunistic George Briggs (Jones) from hanging, but only if he promises to help her escort the three women. Meanwhile, Arabella (Grace Gummer), Theoline (Miranda Otto) and Gro (Sonja Richter) travel with the unlikely pairing locked up in the carriage lost in their own bouts of mental illness. We never really know what exactly the three ladies suffer from, but each of them are used and abused by their husbands so that is sure to be part of it. This may sound like a heartbreaking story – sometimes it is – yet there is a peculiar nature to this old west feature.

The script written by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver – based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout – is a challenging piece. Not only incorporating the many difficulties of being a woman in a rough and rugged time, as well as the devastating effects of mental illness, it is also a sort of love story. The romantic entanglement of the two main characters is at times uncomfortable, yet occasionally charming. However, near the last half hour or so, something happens to one that is so utterly unexpected that it changes the entire focus. This sudden turn is not necessarily for the better. As I’ve not read the novel, I’m not sure how true it is to the source material, but the final act certainly isn’t predictable.

Swank has proven to be a phenomenal actress, and this is no exception. As the plain, middle-aged maiden, she exhumes strength and courage as a woman facing the world with only her morals and her piousness. While she does create some chemistry with Jones, the two make for an odd pairing. The relationship they share with the almost completely silent women traveling with them occasionally borders on the ridiculous. The serious nature of the women and their ailment is hinted at a few times, but this is not their story really. We learn only snippets of their life which is a shame because what they are going through, for me personally is the most promising story to tell.

Along with Swank and Jones there is quite the collection of on-screen talent assembled. Barry Corbin, William Fichtner, John Lithgow, Meryl Streep, Haliee Steinfeld and James Spader all make an appearance, most of only briefly. This includes a mind-numbingly bleak sequence featuring Spader as the owner of a Hotel who refuses to give shelter to Jones and company. One of the many among the strange and unexpected twists THE HOMESMAN takes. Considering this is near the end of the film, it is a little off-putting to see a character take such a drastic – and maybe even despicable – action.

Tommy Lee Jones is an assured director who knows his way around this period. And thankfully, he has smartly cast Swank in the leading role. However, THE HOMESMAN at times is a challenging watch more reputable than actually entertaining. The details in design and costume as well as the score from Marco Beltrami all help to make this gritty western slightly effective. Dissecting original ideas when it comes to this particular genre, there is an oddness that kept this viewer at a distance. As a wildly unorthodox western there is much to be respected, yet at times it is all too difficult to actually enjoy.

The Homesman



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JimmyO is one of’s longest-tenured writers, with him reviewing movies and interviewing celebrities since 2007 as the site’s Los Angeles correspondent.