Hilary Swank stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a hardy Nebraska homesteader who manages her own farm, but has been unable to find anyone willing to marry her. A harsh winter strikes her small farming community, and three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) lose their minds after various hardships. With no one else willing, Cuddy agrees to take the women to Iowa, where arrangements can be made to send them back East. The trip will require several weeks travel through dangerous country, so Cuddy recruits a questionable claim jumper, George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), after saving him from being lynched, to aid her on the journey.
At first glance this seems to follow the basic template of your modern western: take the bones of an exciting adventure story from a classic western and add unconventional heroic figures, an emphasis on the hardship of the American pioneer experience, and overtones of social progressiveness. The journey through hard terrain full of dangerous Indians and criminals goes all the way back to "Stagecoach," but here our heroine is an oddball, unattractive, unmarried woman trying to wrangle three insane charges and an untrustworthy hired hand. Modern conventional wisdom suggests that she win the day through significant personal sacrifice, and help to redeem her travelling companions along the way. The Coen brothers' "True Grit," is be a good model. But this is not what happens in "The Homesman."
I keep coming back to "No Country For Old Men" as the more appropriate Coens' move to compare "The Homesman" to, which Tommy Lee Jones also starred in. The most vital and important part of "Homesman" is actually the long denouement after the more exciting chapters of the film have concluded, where Jones' character takes center stage and major themes are recontextualized from his point of view. I think I can say without giving anything away that both films are ultimately about failure, displacement, loss, and grappling with terrible events that may be ultimately meaningless. And the deliberateness and the candidness of how these ideas are handled sets the film apart, even if the film itself isn't quite up to snuff.
Now, there's plenty to like about the filmmaking here. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is always stirring, particularly the night and interior scenes, and the quiet montages of the three women descending into madness, one by one. Marco Beltrami's score is a standout. The performances are excellent, with Hilary Swank at the height of her powers as the tough but warm-hearted Cuddy. She has excellent chemistry with Tommy Lee Jones, and their sharp back-and-forth alone is worth the price of admission. The cast is populated with familiar faces, many of whom turn in fine smaller performances - James Spader as a pompous hotel owner, John Lithgow as a sympathetic reverend, and Meryl Streep and Hailee Steinfeld in roles I think it's better to let the viewer discover for themselves.
The film falters in its final third, however, and that all-important denouement. The pacing slows to an interminable crawl, the narrative becomes oddly episodic where it hadn't been before, and the direction turns awfully ham-handed. The scenes with Meryl Streep are just awkward and feel like they belong in a different movie. Tommy Lee Jones never loses the plot here, and gets his points across, but there are some serious tonal and narrative problems that threaten to undermine the whole venture. I suspect a lot of it comes down to George Briggs not being nearly as interesting onscreen here than the other major characters, and Jones' performance being tasked with supporting more than it could handle.
"The Homesman" is still a very impressive sophomore effort for Jones, and there's so much in it that I find myself still thinking about in very positive terms. It's a beautiful character piece, a subversion of a subversion of a genre, and really makes me wish Hilary Swank would get more work.