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11 Dec 2014

Go West: 'The Homesman' Works Thanks to Its Twist, and Great Work by Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank

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I’ve often complained that, because I have seen so many movies, I can guess big twists or mysteries in films long before they happen. So I have to give a lot of credit to the Old West drama The Homesman, directed by Tommy Lee Jones—because it has a twist I did not see coming.

Jones directs and co-stars as George Briggs, narrowly saved from hanging by one Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). Mary Bee has won the not-so-prestigious honor of taking three mentally ill women from the Nebraska territories back east via covered wagon. There, they will be handed over to a minister’s wife (Meryl Streep), who will take care of them and surely smack them over the heads with Bibles.

Mary Bee saves George on one condition: He must guide and protect her and the women on their trip. Upon reaching their destination, he will be set free with $300 in his pocket. George, who really has no choice, accepts the offer and joins forces with the strong-willed Mary Bee.

There are a few scenes establishing Mary Bee’s character before she meets up with George, including a very awkward dinner date and marriage proposal. It’s made clear early on that Mary Bee is “plain” and too bossy. While it’s hard to imagine that Swank could ever be “plain,” the bossy part is right on: She is not to be messed with.

Jones establishes the three troubled women with early scenes that are a little confusing. I was eventually able to assess that one woman killed her child; another lost her children to illness; and the other was just a little too into religion. The women are played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter. They aren’t given very much to say, but each makes a memorably tragic impression.

The trip involves the usual Western road-trip mainstays, like a run-in with Indians and bad weather. Through it all, Jones and Swank have a great rapport, playing off each other well. Mary Bee is a complicated character in that she is very strong-willed and independent on one hand, while being guilt ridden, vulnerable and lonely on the other. In her day, to be unmarried at her age meant there was something drastically wrong with her in the public eye, resulting in shame and embarrassment. (The same happens today to a certain extent, but we have TV and iPods to take the edge off.)

Some of her behavior could be construed as erratic and uncharacteristic, but one has to keep in mind that her character occupies a different, cruel stage in American history. Mary Bee’s growing obsession with her social standing makes perfect sense, even if it seems a bit extreme. She wants to conduct sound business and form sensible unions at a time when women weren’t generally allowed to make such suggestions or demands.

Two-time Oscar winner Swank brings a rich coarseness to Mary Bee, a woman perhaps ahead of her time. There’s a sweetness to what Swank does with the role, and a sad element as well, as we see the cross-country trek taking a toll on her.

Jones is pretty much his usual self here—rough and tough on the outside, but definitely in possession of a soft side. As a director, he makes a good-looking movie. However, there are parts of the film that confound a bit, in part because some of the actors look similar. It personally took me a little while to sort some of the action out.

The Homesman isn’t a great Western, but it’s worthy entry to the genre—and it marks a nice return to form for Swank, who downright humiliated herself in some of her more recent roles. Jones has given her a role to remind us that she’s an actress of great power.

The Homesman is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

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