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The Homesman

Although the death of the Western in film seems to have been heralded more times than anyone cares to remember, Hollywood seems to produce a noteworthy one every year or so. While purists will insist that The Homesman, the new period drama directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones and Hillary Swank, is not technically a “western” due to the fact that it’s set in the Midwest, just about all the classic tell-tale signs of the genre are on display here, with an admittedly feminist bent.

Swank continues to prove she’s one of her generation’s great actresses in the role of Mary Bee Cuddy, a middle-aged spinster whose tough exterior disguises a lonely soul. She accepts the unenviable task of escorting three unstable women from her small Nebraska town to a church in Iowa when she feels none of the local men are worthy, ironically becoming the homesman of the title. Before leaving she rescues a washed up claim jumper, George Briggs (Jones), from being lynched for using another man’s property, and recruits his assistance. Along their adventure, the two form an unlikely friendship as their relationship deepens.

To reveal any more of the plot, based on the book by Glenda Swarthout, would be to divulge too much information. Jones and his screenwriters Keiran Fitzgeral and Wesley Oliver allow the story to unfold gradually, not giving in to the demands of modern action pictures. Like the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit (and indeed most of the American classics in the genre), this is a western film more driven by character than gunfights, as Cuddy, Briggs, and the three women they escort are transformed by the various episodes on their journey. The exceptional cast also includes strong supporting turns from Mirando Otto, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Meryl Streep in an outstanding 10-minute sequence late in the film. The Homesman features a haunting, unconventional score from Marco Beltrami, whose inventive use of wind instruments conveys the harsh atmosphere and landscape of the picture just as surely as cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s striking photography.

The Homesman seems to have generated mixed feelings from viewers thus far, and to be honest it’s easy to see why. Those looking for a good old-fashioned western will likely be puzzled and bewildered by the film’s attempts at revisionism. On the other hand, women and younger viewers who would be very receptive to the progressive take on the genre might find the formalism of the picture off-putting. As a result, The Homesman is certainly a somewhat uneven film, but a very admirable one all the same.

Watch the trailer for The Homesman

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