When three women living on the edge of the American frontier are driven mad by harsh pioneer life, the task of saving them falls to the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). Transporting the women by covered wagon to Iowa, she soon realizes just how daunting the journey will be, and employs a low-life drifter, George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), to join her. The unlikely pair and the three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) head east, where a waiting minister and his wife (Meryl Streep) have offered to take the women in. But the group first must traverse the harsh Nebraska Territories marked by stark beauty, psychological peril and constant threat.
The Homesman is, at its best, a surprisingly fierce feminist film. For a large part of the film, there seems to be a theme popping up: the women of this film, who are either deemed crazy by their husbands or too bossy and too plain to marry, suffer because of men. They suffer for various reasons, and when they break, they’re shuttled away. That encompasses not only the three women being transported, but their primary transporter as well. It’s something that may be tied to a period piece (the film is set in 1855), but there’s a clear connection to the way women are still treated in many cases by society today.
Unfortunately, this message is frequently pulled back in an odd effort at making the film more conventional. Most of the film’s interactions involve Mary Bee Cuddy and George Briggs. She’s an independent-minded woman who’s religious and strict. He’s a degenerate whose only interest involves himself. It’s pretty easy to imagine where the film is heading by pairing these two together. It’s not until a surprising twist two-thirds of the way through that the film appears to be really aim for something unique. It’s a shock that gives the film some of its best scenes, before coming to a conclusion not long after that renders much of the aforementioned feminist theme moot.
The film’s certainly not without its merits. In addition to starring, Tommy Lee Jones claims directing and co-writing credits that show strengths in both areas. His Briggs is one of the more loose characters Jones has played, and he serves the character well. Swank, meanwhile, gives an exceptional performance; her face and tone can convey a great deal of pain and strife in the absence of words to match. And the film’s supporting cast includes a great string of actors, including Meryl Streep, James Spader, Hallee Steinfeld, Jesse Plemons, William Fichtner and John Lithgow.
No, The Homesman isn’t a bad film; ultimately, though, it’s disappointing. If the film had touched more on its feminist themes, it really could’ve been something special. As it is, the flashes of greatness are still worth watching. You’ll just wish there was more of those flashes.