Tommy Lee Jones’ return to the director’s chair has excited many but those unfamiliar with his previous work might have been uninspired by the trailer for The Homesman. Though Jones is adept behind the camera, the film itself seemed to be lacking any ingenuity, perhaps just another rehashing of the countless Western trail films that have come before it. Unfortunately this is generally right on the money. Jones has changed the formula somewhat, with a female lead, but in the end The Homesman is simply unremarkable.
Jones’ attempt is nothing if not enjoyable; the story is gripping, and cinematography cleanly delivers a nightmarishly harsh world in the Nebraskan territories. The Homesman is at its best when not trying to look like There Will be Blood, there are more than a handful of scenes that imitate Paul Thomas Anderson’s bleak view of American pioneers; the occasionally haunting score doesn’t help when it moves from sweeping or dramatic to sound a little to like Jonny Greenwood’s work.
That being said, the portrayal of an unmarried woman taking on a man’s job is something of consequence. Mary Bee Cuddy (a Vulcan-like Hilary Swank) will collect three woman who have gone mad during the harsh winter of the territory and take them East to Iowa, where a local minister will take them in. As she attempts to do this she comes across George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a man who has been left to hang on his horse for his crime of appropriating property. In return for his freedom, George agrees to go with Miss Cuddy on her trip, though initially grateful, he quickly lets her know he is not necessarily a man of his word.
Cuddy’s strength and dignity advocate the chance of the film being a feminist parable but it’s hard to tell exactly what it is Jones is trying to say. Despite superb performances from the two leads and an engaging narrative, the film says nothing, The Homesman is at times a tonally-confused semi-moral tale with no discernible goal, but one well made enough to be worth a watch in any case.