Of all the major Hollywood genres that reached the height of their popularity during the classic era but have since died off by now (some examples being musicals, film noir, etc), I lament the loss of the Western genre the most. Such regal landscapes, creative period details, colorful characters, and varying workable tonalities (stonefaced earnestness, or understated sense of moral ambiguity) could only really co-exist properly in this one particular genre. Thankfully there is no shortage of these elements in The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones’ entertaining new Western adventure.
The Homesman tells the story of a woman named Mary B. Cuddy, a single, middle aged woman who lives in a small desert community in Nebraska. When three young women in her town begin to show signs on insanity, she volunteers her services to transport escort them out of state. Eventually she enlists the help of a washed up claims jumper to aid her on the trip, and the two of them set off on the journey together.
This film is up to its elbows in A-list stars, and features quite an impressive laundry list of first rate Hollywood talent, with director Tommy Lee Jones in a starring role, as well as featuring cameos for the likes of James Spader and Meryl Streep. But it’s Hilary Swank as Cuddy who is the clear standout of this remarkably stacked cast. She plays her role with frail, understated conviction, as well as an underlying layer of sadness and desperation. In her own way, she’s just as damaged as the very women she’s transporting, and therefore makes her the most fit to transport them across the territory, since she really understands them the most, even if she doesn’t realize it herself.
With the majority of the principle characters in this film being female, it seems as though with the release of the True Grit remake four years ago, that filmmakers are finally remembering for the first time in almost fifty years that women can be just as valuable players in the Western genre as their male counterparts. While none of the ladies in this film are played up as rugged, gun-slinging antiheros a la Johnny Guitar, that isn’t to say they aren’t given their proper due as fully fleshed out and sympathetic characters in the overall story.
Whether you’re a fan of the Western genre or not, The Homesman would most definitely make for a worthwhile viewing experience. It revives some of the genre’s most appealing attributes and whatever faults the film might have, it’s due to its own narrative shortcoming and not because of the genre it just so happens to prescribe to.