Tommy Lee Jones rode into town nearly ten years ago with The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, a terrific neo-Western that marked the hangdog, sardonic actor as a director to watch. By contrast, The Homesman is much more traditional Western fare, and while it features another strong performance from Jones, his follow-up isn’t quite in the same league. Though heavy female presence brings to mind Clint Eastwood’s more thematically progressive westerns of the '70s – The Beguiled, Two Mules For Sister Sara – Jones’s film falls frustratingly short of the (admittedly high) bar set by his debut.
As a comparison, Robert Duvall’s Get Low is a good benchmark in terms of sentiment and tone, since Jones – famous for his self-professed lack of a sense of humour – is in much lighter mood here. There’s also a slight misdirect, since the film opens not on his claim-jumper George Briggs but on Hilary Swank’s bolshy spinster Mary Bee Cuddy. A determined but desperately lonely woman, Mary has a passion for fairness and a sensitive moral compass. This comes into play when three local women are declared insane: Biddy steps forward to transport them to a shelter in Iowa, making a journey that will take some five weeks to complete.
Mary encounters George with a rope around his neck, having been left to hang by a band of vigilantes. She frees him on the understanding that he will accompany her, and at this point the film promises to become a True Grit-style woman-on-a-mission story. Somehow, though, this never really materialises, despite good chemistry between the two leads.
A major twist at the 90-minute changes the whole film irrevocably, and while it’s a bold decision to stick (presumably) with Glendon Swarthout’s source novel, for the viewer it’s rather too much to absorb, as is Marco Beltrami’s overbearing score. Of its kind, though, The Homesman is polished and thoughtful, just a little bit lacking in emotional punch.