The Homesman

Tommy Lee Jones has never been the kind of actor that fully immerses himself into a character. His voice and his looks are too recognizable for us to completely forget that we are watching Tommy Lee Jones. Let me make two points about this. First Tommy Lee Jones is interesting and entertaining and as I’ve said before, I would gladly pay ten bucks to watch him play himself for two hours. Second, despite his inability to escape his essential Tommy Lee Jonesness, he is still a terrific actor.
It must be very frustrating for him to be limited like that. The studios only see him in one kind of role anymore, which is basically the same role he played in The Fugitive, a no nonsense figure of competent authority. Which is odd considering that one of his first major roles was as notorious Gary Gilmore in The Executioner’s Song. His physical presence and attributes mean he has a range, but it is wider than Hollywood generally recognizes. I have no idea if this is the reason he chose to write, with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, and direct The Homesman but in doing so he has given himself a rare opportunity to stretch.
In the 1850’s three Nebraska wives have been driven insane by the hardships of frontier life. It is decided that they should be taken back east to Iowa so that their families can take care of them. By a series of odd events the task falls to Mary Bee Cuddy, played by Hilary Swank, a spinster who nonetheless runs a profitable and clean farm. Mary is a strong-willed woman, who is determined to do the right thing, but also has a great deal of compassion for her charges. As the immensity of her task dawns on her, however, she begins to have doubts about her ability to accomplish it. The weeks long trek through the Nebraska wilderness filled with bandits and Indians is extremely dangerous. Mary happens upon George Briggs, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who is in the process of being hanged for claim jumping. She saves him after extracting a promise to accompany her to Iowa with the women.
The Homesman is a pretty film with panoramic shots of the treeless and desolate Nebraska landscape. Often the empty sky dwarfs the image of Mary’s wagon and horse team, symbolizing the pitiful struggle of people against an unforgiving nature. In the world of the film, the only mercy that one can expect is from other human beings and even that is not to be relied upon.
The script has some problems. There is a certain point in the plot—I will not reveal what happens—after which the movie kind of falls apart.
The two leads, Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones, deliver terrific performances. This is a story about how life in unrelenting conditions can warp people and affect their thinking. Swank and Jones are both adept at portraying people who are not immune to this but who function anyway. The most impressive thing is that at no point do they lose their sharp edges. And if the events of the film change them, that information is buried beneath their prickly exteriors. The Homesman is a drama about redemption that leaves the question of whether or not the redemption took unanswered.
It also gives Tommy Lee Jones a chance to show us what he can do if allowed to stretch.

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