This is how I imagine a realistic buddy-cop-comedy in the Wild West to be. Lots of banter, less fun, more drama.
“The Homesman”, written and directed by Tommy Lee Jones, stars said old-timer and Hilary Swank. They are however only the head of an amazing cast, with big names down to the last minor role, literally. The film revolves around Swanks Mary Bee Cuddy, who is an independent farmer, a pious woman, who consents to transport three women whom the life on the frontier has driven mad back to the east, into the hands of the church. In this endeavor, she enlists the help of low-life drifter George Briggs, played by Jones.
When this movie’s opening credits were rolling, I could not help being impressed. When I wrote that this film is filled with great names to the last minor role, I meant it. Meryl Streep is in this movie… it doesn’t get much bigger than that. At the same time, there is young talent like the amazing Jesse Plemons, Todd from Breaking Bad, or Hailee Steinfeld, a seventeen year old Academy Award nominee. And each of these people deliver. The most attention obviously goes to Hilary Swank, who knocks it out of the park. The script provides her with an interesting character and she makes good use of it. Jones’ character is slightly more by-the-book, though never boring or flat. Especially the second half demands a lot from this role and Jones delivers without failure.
To list all of the supporting cast would take too long, but damn, they’re impressive. The three women they transport are haunting, with Miranda Otto standing out among them.
All of these characters get their time, which plays into the greatest strength of “The Homesman”, after its stellar cast. The attention to detail and the ambition in depicting as much of the pioneering life as possible is impressive. The pace might be slow because of this, but it provides the movie with an immersive effect that a period film always needs.
One problem the Homesman has, though, is its story. While the basic story is very simple and easy to follow, it is embellished a lot, always with the intention to paint as accurate a picture of life in the west as possible. However, while the individual scenes all play very well, they sometimes don’t add up as well as they should. For example, a desecration of an Indian grave should create tension when our main characters later meet a group of Pawnees, but the two scenes play completely separate from each other (those two don’t necessarily should either, but it’s the best way to illustrate the point).
Adding to that, especially in the first third of the movie, the story is told in a disjointed fashion, intercutting Cuddy’s story with the suffering of the three women. While each of the scenes makes the women more interesting, it also makes the story less accessible in the beginning.
To my initial remark about buddy-cop-comedies, this really isn’t that far away from it. Jones obviously knows that where there is drama, there is also comedy. He obviously didn’t write this as a comedy, and it never is, but there is some humor derived from the mismatch between Swanks pious and sincere woman and Jones vagrant scoundrel, just in the way the buddy-cop genre does it, only if not funnier, then at least more sincere than most movies of the genre these days do. However, not to be misleading, the drama is the center of this film. And the film has a lot of emotional punch, be prepared for that.
So, in conclusion, this is a good movie. A great cast and amazing attention to detail make it a potentially great movie, but problems in pacing and story hold it back. If you like western, the thoughtful kind, this might be the right movie for you. If you are looking for shootouts, not as much.