America’s westward expansion and the vast American frontier of the 1850s never seemed grimmer nor quirkier on screen than in The Homesman, a wayward Western directed by Tommy Lee Jones, the first movie he’s directed since The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada nine years ago. It’s based on Glendon Swarthout’s award-winning 1988 novel and it’s easy to see why Paul Newman tried for years to get financing for him to direct and star in it.
Swarthout (who also wrote the novels Bless the Beasts and Children and The Shootist) bent the genre in offbeat and interesting directions, spinning a harrowing episodic yarn about two misfits transporting across the plains a wagonload of chained women driven to despair and madness by the stark realities of the new American frontier – dislocation, isolation, lack of resources, and the constant threat of Indian attacks. The book takes the woman’s point of view and that, in a Western, makes all the difference.
But, despite the talented Hilary Swank starring as a plain Jane unmarried woman living, as she says, “uncommonly alone,” and Jones himself playing an old varmint claim jumper, the transition from page to screen is pretty rocky. The template for the central relationship seems obvious and satisfying in its familiarity – a little The African Queen, a bit of True Grit, a touch of Two Mules For Sister Sara. Jones’ mercenary ex-soldier has enough Rooster Cogburn to give the idiosyncratic actor plenty of room to strut his stuff and the gruff anti-hero comes off as salty, colorful, mysterious in his motivations and just shy of full-on nutjob. Swank’s spinster is intelligent, cultured, no nonsense but also emotionally (and, for the right male prospect, sexually) available. And though it’s admirable that the screenplay as adapted by Jones (along with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver) puts Swank squarely in the driver’s (an Oscar bait-ish) seat for almost the movie’s entire running time, her inability to make the character even remotely likable or charismatic proves fatal. She and Jones don’t throw off sparks.
Worse, the movie’s tone is like a runaway wagon. A crazed frontier woman gets raped by her crazed husband one minute and another woman is hurling her infant into an outhouse toilet, but the next we’re supposed to be delighted by the vinegary Swank and cartoonish Jones trading barbs while on the road along the open range facing terrible hardships. The three women bound for asylums back east are played by Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer and Sonja Richter and although we should care about them, the movie mostly confines them to acing nutsy.
The Homesman, a weird, half-cooked film, wonderfully photographed in golden hues by Rodrigo Prieto, works best when it gets truly odd and ornery. Jones seems more comfortable with Swarthout’s colorful sidebar characters, like a knife-happy horndog kidnapper played by Tim Blake Nelson and a tin-hearted hotelier with an uneasy Irish brogue played by James Spader. There’s also an appearance by Meryl Streep as a kindly preacher’s wife that is, mercifully, low-key and brief. The Homesman isn’t dull. It’s too peculiar for that. But neither does it make you want to saddle up and ride off with either of its two leading characters, either. **½