#GAfilm Review: “The Homesman” (****)

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Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones star in “The Homesman”

“The Homesman” was the second film I saw at the 2014 Savannah Film Festival, but it was the first of many good films that week. I went into the SCAD Museum of Art pretty blind—only knowing that the film starred Hillary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed. I didn’t know it was partially shot in Georgia, or that it features a much more unique—and female-driven—story than most of the westerns you see hit cinemas these days.

Female roles in westerns usually consist of the barmaid or the wife/mother/sister stuck back on the range. It isn’t often that a western starts with a woman, features a woman in a lead role and has plenty of more women in supporting roles. Now, that isn’t to say that a woman remains the lead of the film the entire time or that the supporting actresses are given particularly weighty roles.

Set in remote Loup City on the Nebraska plains, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is an unmarried (although, not for lack of insisting), hard-working woman who runs a tight ranch all by herself. When three of the town’s women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) are driven insane by loss and harsh living conditions, it falls on Cuddy to transport them to a church in Iowa where they may receive proper care. As she sets out on this daunting task, she encounters George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), an irresponsible drifter who has been lynched and swears himself to Cuddy’s service if she saves him. Cuddy, knowing she will need help handling these women, sets him free and sweetens the bargain for Briggs with promised money at the end of their mission.

The way we are introduced to the three crazy women is through rather stark, almost shocking vignettes after we’ve already grown accustomed to the tidy life of Cuddy. The contrast of these introductions almost takes the audience out of the vibe a little bit, but ultimately promises enough intrigue and suspense to allow you to reconcile yourself to the different tones. These early scenes are where we get the most meat from Gummer, Otto and Richter. Unfortunately, the prospect of three fully fleshed-out, truly insane supporting performances from these women wasn’t completely realized in the film. These actresses are hardly wasted, though—Gummer shining the brightest through the quietest performance of the three. Swank is planted firmly in the lead—and makes the most of her best role in years—until the audience is uprooted yet again.

This switching of lead roles, from Swank to Jones, is so jarring, it takes several minutes to really believe that it happened. Tragic, yes, but it serves as an impetus for Briggs’ character to complete his emotional transformation that has been idling for most of the film so far. Jones really starts to get good only after he takes the reigns, a necessity for the film to return any audience investment at that point. As a director, Jones also handles this bucking bronco of story with class. It’s not poetic, nor does it try to be—which is all too common in westerns.

Even when the story seems like it doesn’t exactly know where it’s headed, Jones makes the most of short performances from the likes of John Lithgow, Hailee Steinfeld, James Spader, Barry Corbin and Meryl Streep—and from moments Jones has all to himself. Marco Beltrami’s score is beautiful without trying too hard to fit into the western score cannon. Rodrigo Preito (who was in attendance at the screening) keeps the photography in line with Jones’ modest direction, capturing the beauty of the frontier and the power of our lead characters in equal measure.

Shot in Westville (near Lumpkin, south of Columbus) and in New Mexico, “The Homesman” jumps its narrative hurdles with class, although not without some difficulty. The undeniable devotion of Tommy Lee Jones (as writer, director, producer and actor) shines atop a sterling cast.
4 out of 5 stars.
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