The 400-Word Review: The Homesman
By Sean Collier
December 15, 2014

What do you say we trade hats?

Interior, cabin. Evening. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) offers her gentleman caller (Evan Jones) a bit of music. He agrees; she unfurls a length of fabric with painted-on piano keys, and mimes playing while accompanying herself in song. Evidently pleased by this, the man nods off and begins snoring.

Exterior, a farmyard. Daytime. A woman nurses her newborn child, then violently chucks it into an outhouse toilet and walks away.

Those two scenes are in the same movie.

In The Homesman, Mary Bee is a single woman maintaining a farm in the Nebraska Territory. After a harsh winter, three local women go mad (including the perpetrator aforementioned infanticide), and someone needs to escort them back east to a sanitarium. When none of the local men are willing or able to complete the task, Mary Bee volunteers; she enlists the help of low-level outlaw George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones, also writer and director) and sets off on a perilous journey.

Those two lead performances are excellent, and the Oscar winners make a surprisingly fine pair. And despite the indulgence of helming and starring in his own work, Jones has a keen ability to create a western reverential of its bygone genre that still feels like a work of modern filmmaking. (Evidently he learned from the mistakes Ron Howard made in 2003’s The Missing, a flop of a western in which Jones starred.)

The Homesman has an identity crisis, though; it is unafraid to show the brutality of its subject matter, but can’t help but throw in comic relief, side missions and all manner of distractions to lessen the mood. The madness of the women is not played for laughs; their diseases are real, troubling and graphic. And as we learn that Mary Bee may not be as put-together as she appears, the film grows dark.

Yet there are farcical scenes. There are random acts of video-game violence. There’s stunt casting (stay tuned for Meryl Streep). The Homesman begs you to take it seriously, but it’s afraid that you actually will.

The resurrection of the genre has been promised on television, as Deadwood and Justified have demonstrated that blood remains in its veins and Breaking Bad has proven that a series set in modern times can fit into the genre, too. The Homesman is promising, but it’ll take a more complete vision to fully revive the old west on the silver screen.

My Rating: 7/10

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at