I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for a decent western, but in this day and age they are rare beasts indeed and they seldom draw much attention from the media (the honourable exception being the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, a strong Oscar contender back in 2011.) Veteran actor Tommy Lee Jones has co-written and directed this downbeat story, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout and while it’s occasionally rather bleak, there’s nonetheless plenty here to enjoy, even if the movie doesn’t really deserve the ‘feminist western’ tag it’s been er… saddled with. Yes, there’s a strong female central character, but there are also three women who have been driven mad by their inability to cope with life in the wilderness, whilst their respective husbands seem to be getting along just fine – so while it might be considered feminist in the sense that it centres on a woman’s story, it’s hardly a tale of empowerment.
Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a spinster, hacking out a living for herself as a homesteader in the brutal environs of Nebraska territory at some unspecified point in the 1800s. Because she’s supposedly ‘as plain as a tin pail’ she’s struggling to find a husband for herself in an era where such a failure is considered shameful. This is one point where the film doesn’t really convince. Swank is terrific in the role, but there’s no way anyone could consider her plain, despite the costume department putting her in some of the ugliest costumes in cinematic history. Cuddy is a devout and determined woman and when she hears that three local wives have (for a variety of reasons) lost their minds, she undertakes the hazardous job of driving them back East to civilisation, a trip that will take five weeks or more. When she chances on George Briggs (Lee Jones) sitting on a horse with a rope around his neck, she offers to save his life if he will promise to help her with the (unspecified) task and he hastily agrees, little realising what he’s taking on. Lee Jones is a delight as the scowling, curmudgeonly George, a man with a shady past and a tendency to go off the rails when he’s had a few drinks. If the film is reminiscent of any other, it’s The African Queen and the pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Humphry Bogart.
As I said, there’s much to admire here. Great central performances, superb cameos from the likes of Meryl Streep and Hailee Steinfeld (though James Spaders’ turn as a duplicitous Irish hotel owner, features a very dodgy accent indeed) and a genuinely shocking surprise in the film’s final third. But a sequence where Briggs burns down Spader’s hotel (and everyone in it) seems somehow over the top, given the minor provocation he’s received. (Perhaps it was the accent?) At the end of the day, The Homesman is an entertaining film, that falls short of perfection in a few respects, but is still worth your consideration.