I will start by saying I have always liked Tommy Lee Jones. I think he may have overreached his talents in this film. Trying to direct and star in your own adapted screenplay is an ambitious task for a first time director, even for an industry veteran like Jones. Unfortunately, the Homesman does not number among his greater accomplishments.
A period drama set in the Old West, a 31 year old spinster (Hilary Swank) is tasked with the delivery of three women who have gone mad – privately, there was no epidemic of madness – to a church that would arrange for their travel back east from Nebraska, as their husbands could no longer care for them. This is a flawed premise from the outset, but, at least in part due to a seasoned cinematographic look, I gave the film the benefit of the doubt. For the first half hour, it looks and feels like a Clint Eastwood film, with some Coen brothers’ quirkiness, except that everyone in the film looks too clean to be living in the desert. When the storyline takes a dark turn, revealing the descent of the three women into madness (a combined ordeal that lasted less than five minutes on the beat sheet, and can be traced to failures or crises of motherhood of one form or another), Jones reveals himself as a drunkard, a criminal and a condemned man, as well the man who would save the four women from traversing the Nebraska to Iowa landscape alone. From this point, the film focuses primarily on the failures of all of the women in the film – a trio of mute madwomen tethered to the inside of a wooden trailer pulled by two mules who are incapable even of using the toilet on their own – and flattens their respective predicaments into opaque “female issues” to do with dead and unborn children, absent mothers and distant or abusive husbands. The women occasionally participate in the narrative progression, but only as interceptors or reflectors of Jones’ self-directed activity. Swank’s character, who is initially presented as a strong, independently wealthy woman from New York is ultimately only focused on her lack of a husband, and anything more interesting about her is relegated to absent-minded musings about trees, or feeding water to a doll with a thimble as a means of reaching out to the youngest of her charges, a 19 year old girl who lost her daughters to disease. Again, the glimpsed stories behind each of the characters betray a series of missed opportunities for conveying the depth, darkness and even depravity of desert life on the Frontier.
As I am not really keen on panning the first feature film of a man whose work I respect, I will keep this review short, and say only that I was surprised by the casual racism against natives, who were also mute, except when whooping like monkeys, and appeared onscreen only to have their dead desecrated, or to be slaughtered in anecdotes about the US “Dragoons”. I was also surprised by the unapologetic flattening of all of the female characters in service of enriching the overall life experience of the central male lead, and disappointed that, despite the careful pacing and stunning cinematography, the film feels like an homage to some of the directors Jones has done his best work with, rather than reflecting his own distinctive voice. While I am not keen on panning the film, I make no apologies for the sexism or racism in it. I believe, however, that it doesn’t come so much from a place of intent (or Jones would be rapidly dispatched from the “people whose work I respect” list), so much as from a lack of attention to detail. Had Jones given more of the film over to character study – in the style of the two directors he already seems to have borrowed so heavily from – or elected to simplify the storyline sufficiently that helpless women and a voiceless minority enemy weren’t necessary to better “dress” the leading man, the Homesman would not have suffered from the ailments brought on by their clumsy handling.
Having said all of this, I hope he continues to direct, but I think he might be better to leave the writing and the lead role to other people, so that he can focus on realizing his next story in his own way.