Tommy Lee Jones directs, co-writes and co-stars in pseudo-feminist Western The Homesman. The twist is that the Homesman is a woman.
Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a capable pioneer woman who volunteers to transport three sick women back east, all of whom are completely mad and silent, like Jason Voorhees or Dopey. She rescues Tommy Lee Jones’ cantankerous old George Briggs from a hanging tree and enlists his help on the perilous journey.
The pair are a joy to watch, particularly Swank, whose Mary Bee Cuddy is deeply vulnerable beneath her hard-edged exterior. She’s constantly being dismissed as “bossy” and “plain” by men rejecting her bizarrely forthright proposals of marriage. “This is fine cheese Bob, so why not marry?” I’ve never had cheese fine enough to inspire a proposal of marriage. And I’ve had some damn fine cheese.
This jarring dialogue represents a problem with the overall tone, which bumps around as if pulled along by horses. Crazy women from an exorcism movie and Red Indians from a Western sit as awkwardly together as Briggs and Cuddy, but without their predictable reconciliation. Their journey might only be a literal one, given the unsatisfying lack of character development.
It also destroys any notion of feminism, the only potentially interesting aspect of the movie, through the inexplicable events of the film’s third act, its treatment of its female characters and the shift of focus onto Briggs himself, which makes The Homesman a bit like that picture of Theresa May in a “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt. That is to say, it wants people to think it cares about women, but actually harbours 1850s attitudes.
It might take a long time to do nothing particularly interesting, but The Homesman benefits from the great performances of Swank and Jones, stirring music from Marco Beltrami and handsome cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, which atmospherically captures the stark landscapes and golden plains of the Old West. Weirdly, Luc Besson is billed as a producer, perhaps because he wanted his name attached to a film that might win an Oscar. But probably won’t.