"You are a man of low character." That's just about the worst thing Mary Bee Cuddy could ever say to a person. Cuddy, an industrious and clear-focused frontierswoman, is a marvelous individual who deserves a better movie than Tommy Lee Jones' "The Homesman." It is a desultory story that head-fakes toward making a unique statement on gender norms and the role of women in the development of the American West. But it devolves, bafflingly, into a spectacle where might makes right, followed by a flood of self-righteous mansplaining. There are even some war-whoopin' injuns. If this is a revision to the revisionist westerns ushered in by "Unforgiven," I'll stay back East(wood.)
Still, Hilary Swank, the go-to choice for women who ride the line between virility and glamour, is quite good as the all-business, profoundly moral beacon in the chaotic, miserable Nebraska territory. When three settlers' wives all "go crazy" and need to be shipped back east, she's the one who ends up leading them on the dangerous trek. (The menfolk, naturally, all come up with excuses.)
There are a few moments where Jones makes good use of the location – scenes of snowfall and a desperate pre-dawn ride echoing O'Toole in the Nefud from "Lawrence of Arabia," but this movie will not put you in a “Meek's Cutoff”-like daze. It goes all-in on its characters, which is a poor choice as everyone except Swank's Cuddy is annoying.
The three "deranged" women – bedraggled creatures as young as 19 who crack under the hostile conditions of the frontier and its high infant mortality rates – wail with the subtlety of a daytime soap. Then there's Swank's co-pilot, Tommy Lee Jones himself, as a claim-jumping scoundrel who makes sourpuss faces like Droopy Dog. When we first meet him he's a-hollerin' in his longjohns with a trap door in the back for a-poopin'. It's a ridiculous cartoon, and that would be fine if the rest of the movie weren't about dead babies and psychosis.
They say the journey is as important as the destination, so it's to be expected "The Homesman" is going to be about getting back to civilization. But that would be too easy. There's a slow-as-mud build-up before Swank and Jones even hit the road. I suppose this is service of getting to know the three women (the "freight" as Jones calls them) but as none of them speak they are basically interchangeable. The only thing that does change are Swank and Jones' characters, swiftly and shockingly, and seemingly out of nowhere.
Swank's Cuddy, at age 31, has carefully plotted out her affairs, but has failed to catch a man. (An early attempt to win a suitor with canned peaches doesn't go over so well.) She is considered “too bossy,” though when her services are needed she's “as good a man as any man here.” Her religious ardor shatters, however, after some tough going on the road, but the movie doesn't sell it.
I wanted to buy the relationship between these two pioneering souls, but once Jones starting singin' and dancin' like Yosemite Sam at the campfire, I could hitch my wagon no longer. Jones' musty humorous side works well in most of his output, but when he's directing himself he clearly can't reel himself in.
"The Homesman" certainly wins a few points for trying a different type of Western. There are no greedy land barons and no gunslingers drawin' at high noon. But being unique isn't enough if the story remains uneven and the characters don't feel real. After Jones' fine directorial debut, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," "The Homesman" is a disappointment.