As a child I sat in a hard plastic chair in my town library and played The Oregon Trail until eventually my player died of dysentery. I thought it was cool to put my name on a list, hear it called out, and get to play for a whole 30 minutes all my myself. Little did I know/care that I was actually learning in the process. All of those memories came flooding back when I saw the new Roadside Attractions release, The Homesman.
We follow a frontier woman named Mary Bee Cuddy and her tenacious spirit. Mary is charged with transporting three women via covered wagon across the plains where she struggles with harsh terrain, faith, and perseverance. When she comes across drifter George Briggs, she employs him to help her with the journey, for her three passengers are tied to the inside of the wagon, as they have all gone mad from living the frontier life. Their goal is to safely arrive at the home of a minister and his wife who have agreed to care for them. Along the way facing danger and uncertainty in a time and place where anything and everything is a threat to your survival.
For me, the film plays out in 3 three very distinct acts; Act One: Determination, Act Two: Resilience, and Act Three: Redemption. It flows much like the novel of the same name by author Glendon Swarthout. Hilary Swank gives ans award-winning performance. Her fragility is just under the hard surface. She is elegant on screen and takes her physicality to another place, as she tends to do in each and every role. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a story like this from a woman’s perspective. There are moments when you want to reach into the screen and hold Swank, then you settle back and think, “She’s got this.” Beauty radiates from the sincerity in her eyes. She is captivating. Tommy Lee Jones not only directs, but is one of the three screen writers and plays the role of George. He is funny and charming as a scoundrel of a man. His character has a marvelous progression as the story rolls along. Though, at times I felt his performance would have been better suited for the stage. Which, for me, is actually a huge compliment.
This brings me to my only “issue”. The Homesman is chock-full of, what I would really call, cameos. Meryl Streep, James Spader, John Lithgow and Tim Blake Nelson all give superb performances but it almost seemed that at times each was in a different film altogether. It made the story feel slightly disjointed.
The three other women in the story simply must be applauded for their breathtaking acting. Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter take crazy to a whole new level. Each gives a completely nuanced performance that is hopeful, heartbreaking, and jarring all in the same vein. These are the roles actors wait their entire lives for. They are brilliant. The music and cinematography are stunning from the opening shot to the last. The solid two hour run is worth it as a master class in acting but as a whole, I’m still on the fence.
The Homesman comes to theaters this Friday, November 14th.
Rated R for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity