"The Homesman" (R) 3 stars (out of four)
In an awards season hyped by a sophomore directorial effort with Angelina Jolie and "Unbroken," Tommy Lee Jones solidly flies in under the radar with his second feature film as director with "The Homesman." And while it's quite likely Jones' independent feature will disappear from the public's radar before Jolie's film on Dec. 25, it may have luck in a couple acting categories if awards voters take notice.
Hilary Swank stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a well-to-do spinster who relocates from New York City to rural Nebraska in the 1850s in hopes of landing new business opportunities and with any luck, a husband. Following another rejection from a prospective suitor and looking for a purpose, Mary volunteers to transport three women driven to insanity after a harsh winter in the prairie to a church in Iowa that treats the mentally ill.
But as strong-willed and physically capable as Mary is in an era that places little value on women, she decides she can't make the five-week trip by horse and wagon alone. To aid her efforts, Mary befriends a harmless drifter, George Briggs (Jones), to help her navigate the harsh environment and fend off the dangers of the territory, only to realize that the grizzled ne'er do-well may be the mate she's long been hoping for.
Those who enjoy great performances will certainly get a fill of them in "The Homesman." While it's clearly a film meant to highlight Swank's and Jones' talents, it also benefits from a strong supporting cast that includes John Lithgow, and to a lesser extent, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld ("True Grit"), William Fichtner and Meryl Streep.
Stellar performances aside, "The Homesman" never quite manages to pull itself out of its narrative funk because of its dark and depressing subject matter. The scenes that chronicle the three women's (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonya Richter) psychological breaks are deeply disturbing and particularly tough to watch, and all hope for an uplifting ending is thrown out the window with a shocking twist before the final third of the film.
For a film that aspires to be a tale of redemption, "The Homesman" rides a very rocky road getting there.
Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.