~Downstairs at the Savoy~
Rated R; 120 minutes
Jeffrey Anderson, Combustible Celluloid (excerpted)
Based on a classic novel by Glendon Swarthout, The Homesman is a great modern-day Western. As evidenced by his last film, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, director Tommy Lee Jones has a keen eye for hard landscapes (including his own weathered face) and emotional compositions. The Homesman is full of striking imagery: the locked, coffin-like coach, fresh new buildings in hardscrabble dirt, or a disturbed grave on a gnarly plain.
Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is an upright, single pioneer woman in the Nebraska Territory, unable to find a husband on account of being "plain" and "bossy." When three local women go insane and need to be transported to Iowa for special care, Mary Bee volunteers for the unpleasant, dangerous job. She happens upon a so-called claim jumper, the ragged, uncouth George Briggs (Jones), at the end of a rope, she rescues him in exchange for his help on the journey. Besides adapting to the unpredictable and disturbing behavior of the women, the unlikely pair must face ever-increasing dangers.
Jones is wise enough to step into the supporting role, giving Hilary Swank room to do her best stuff as Cuddy, an extraordinary woman, strong as a man, yet full of yearning and forever giving more than she gets. As Briggs, Jones sometimes provides cranky comic relief from the grim material but eventually grows into a sympathetic, essential character (thanks to several women). Meryl Streep works her magic in the later scenes, as does young cowgirl Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit).