There are not many westerns with great roles for women, so “The Homesman,” in which every role of import but one is played by an excellent actress, would be notable for that reason alone.
It’s also quite a superb genre picture, marking the third time Tommy Lee Jones has returned to this terrain as a director and again establishing his mastery over the distinctly American form.
The film, adapted from the eponymous novel by Glendon Swarthout, follows a Nebraska territory woman named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) who agrees to escort three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) who have had psychological breakdowns across the Missouri River to Iowa for treatment.
Joining her is an irascible old cuss named George Briggs (Jones), but their journey is less about the particulars than it is a studied and thoughtful examination of the unfair pressures faced by women on the frontier that also reconsiders the ways they’ve been classically portrayed in the western.
Jones and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto place great weight on the vast, empty expanse, with the action unfolding against endless skies and the camera pointing up to consider the landscape’s gargantuan imprint on the individuals trying to conquer it.
The power of Swank’s lovely, dignified performance is enhanced by Jones’ eye for the metaphysical nature of the untamed setting. Her Mary is kind and smart, as unafraid of the unknown beyond her front door as she is downtrodden by being single at 31 and terrified of the stigmatized prospect of a future alone.
She is, put simply, a wonderful person, capable of changing even the most cynical and nihilistic of men over the course of a journey together, and the movie spares no expense in showing the ways her society has marginalized and abandoned her. There’s an indelible image here that drives home the idea with a stark, unflinching eye, ensuring that you’ll think about “The Homesman” long after the lights have come up.
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones | Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer | Rated R