The Homesman (2014)

R, 122 minutes, Western

Starring: Tommy Lee JonesHilary Swank

Perhaps the greatest thing about westerns is that they don’t pull punches.  We’ve all read that life on the American frontier was full of hardships and death; opportunity and misfortune.  In this setting civilization has not yet reached its tendrils to the lonely plains of the Old West, thus leaving those brave enough to venture into it fairly alone.  This makes the perfect backdrop for the horror depicted in The Homesman.

The story starts with three women murdering their infants.  They’ve all slipped into some kind of prairie sickness that has caused them to kill their own.  Each woman succumbs to her own personal nightmare: one loses all of her livestock, another is raped, and the other has only her youth to blame.  Unable to handle the stress of the bleak existence of a settler and its grief, as well as a new screaming child, the women snap.  Their husbands, unable to raise their families and heal their ailing wives, agree to send them off to a reverend across the country for treatment.

This is where our unlikely heroes, who have been tasked with transporting the three mentally disturbed women, step in.  This is far from a buddy team-up comedy as our protagonists are close to being as cerebrally offset as the cargo they carry.  Cuddy is a Plain Jane spinster determined to show her worth before she surpasses marrying age.  She rescues Briggs, an aging squatter, who has been left to hang.  Cuddy spares his life in exchange for his assistance on the journey.  The two of them set out East to face the perils that await them.

Tommy Lee Jones really put a lot into this film.  Not only did he star in it, but he produced it, directed it, and even co-wrote the script.  This is actually the first time he’s filled all four roles at once and for the most part it works.  The story is depressing and honestly not that great, but it does get the job done as, like its setting, it is harsh.  This is most evident in the beginning of the movie as the mere shock value of a woman uncaringly tossing a screaming infant down an outhouse pit sets the dark tone.  The last section of the movie, especially the ending, further affirm the grim reality in which the characters exist.

Should have fed the man...
Should have fed the man…

Something that really bothered me about the story was the perspective change.  In the beginning, we follow Cuddy long enough to establish that she is the main character.  We are given her background and her passions long before Briggs enters the scene.  Once he’s there, it takes a while for him to loosen up around Cuddy, but then suddenly it’s his story.  It’s almost as though two pieces were fit together even though they overlapped.  Or perhaps one story was written, but it was determined that a secondary story would prove more interesting.  In either case it was a little frustrating to me since I was led to invest time in one character when the other was seemingly intended to be the focus.

Overall, this is a rough, but decent film: two parts western, one part non-traditional horror.  It’s limited release and poor performance at the box office haven’t helped its fame, but it’s still worth a watch if you enjoy westerns or Tommy Lee Jones.

Rating: Watch it once.

Watch: Because it’s a dark western.
Don’t watch: If you don’t like dead babies and need more action in your movies.