Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman is a film never sure what it wants to be, a tonally-mismatched piece that never commits to the horror of its initial situation, mixing scenes of rape and violence with ill-judged ‘odd couple’ moments of comedy and light slapstick.
The root of The Homesman — that three women on the frontier have lost their minds from sexual violence, sickness and death, and the only recourse is to forcibly remove them back to the east for care, spending weeks in confinement and facing murderers, bandits and the harsh frontier elements along the way — is so fundamentally horrific that the film can’t sustain the bleakness and loses its nerve early on, interspersing moments of terror and infanticide with whimsical scenes and hoary old “woken by a horse licking his face” cliches.
Is this a grim, serious film about the brutal mental toll wrought upon frontierswomen, or is it a mis-matched buddy comedy where the grizzled old homesman and the uptight, independently-minded spinster learn from each other? The Homesman is never sure, but it can’t be both — I can’t laugh at Tommy Lee Jones ironically rolling his eyes at the world when moments ago I was watching a rape or self-mutilation. The increasing despair and breakdown on the part of Hilary Swank’s character is paired up with Tommy Lee Jones’ whiskery, whisky-soaked character dancing wacky jigs, making Swank’s own collapse hard to take seriously until it’s too late.
The supporting cast is packed with recognisable faces, ranging from William Fichtner, David Dencik and Jesse “Meth Damon” Plemons to bigger names: Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson. Unfortunately Streep and Lithgow are wasted, delivering limp, wet scenes that could have been handled by unknowns, and Spader and Nelson put in broad comic turns that are wildly out of step with their character actions (turning away starving women and kidnapping, respectively).
There’s enough darkness and scope in The Homesman to make a gritty, grimy revenge flick — something in the same line as Red Hill or The Rover — with Jones as a reluctantly-hired isolationist delivering fiery vengeance upon those that spurned him and the women he’s charged with protecting, and the film certainly veers that way once or twice, but it never follows through. While the film is beautifully shot and scored, and Jones and Swank deliver great performances, they also both seem to be acting in different films, and the mismatched tone makes for an uneven film. Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff might be a better bet for those in the mood for a really despairing Western.