In the Nebraska Territory, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) tends to her fields alone, before cooking a meal, baking a peach pie, and singing a song for her neighbor and guest, Bob Giffen (Evan Jones). It’s an attempt to convince the man into marriage, with an additional offer of capital, land, resources, and even children – but he’s not interested due to her bossiness (and, perhaps, plainness). Meanwhile, trouble brews with some of the womenfolk in the town, with Reverend Alfred Dowd (John Lithgow) reporting on three mentally disturbed subjects who have been unable to cope with recent deaths, births, and pioneer life in general.
During a meeting between a handful of townsfolk, including the unreliable, brutish Vester Belknap (William Fichtner) and the reluctant Garn Sours (Jesse Plemons), Mary volunteers to drive a wagon with the three lunatics across the country, tasked with taking them back East to their closest next of kin in Iowa. It will be a journey wrought with peril, and one that even a man would have difficulty undertaking. But Cuddy is as formidable as any man. After she obtains a wagon, complete with shackles and locking bolts (just in case), Mary stumbles upon a claim jumper with a noose around his neck. The unlucky fellow is George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), who swears to do whatever Mary asks of him if she’ll spare his life.
Their first stop is to pick up teenaged Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Garn’s wife, who no longer speaks and spends her time staring listlessly out the window. The second charge is Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter), a raving madwoman who thinks she’s God and attempts to bite everyone in reach. Displeased with her inability to produce a child, her husband Thor (David Dencik) regularly abuses her; she remains trussed up with ropes while wailing ceaselessly like an injured animal. The third woman to be escorted home is Theoline (Miranda Otto), Vester’s wife, who murdered their newborn baby and who must also stay bound. Once on the road, solitude is a blessing, as the only people they’re likely to run into will only be interested in rape and murder.
It’s quickly apparent that “The Homesman” isn’t going to skimp on the harsh realities of the mid 1800s, refusing to shy away from self-mutilative dementia, filthiness, drunkenness, cursing, scavenging Indians, suicide, rape, and the defilement of graves and corpses. It’s an ugly, morbid, and yet strikingly realistic depiction of the Old West – and an unusual and often neglected feminist angle of the genre. Though based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, the author of “They Came to Cordura” and “The Shootist,” this brooding, pessimistic story is far from typical cinematic material. A short-lived brawl and a shootout are about as exciting as it gets; but the powerful themes of redemption, resourcefulness, and perseverance edge out the commonplace action of more classic ventures.
A series of brief flashbacks for each woman early on feels misplaced and unnecessary. Although they are intended to inform audiences of the hardships that drove the poor creatures crazy, most only serve to emphasize the women’s disturbed dispositions and the irreparable damages done. Comparably unessential is the casting of notable actors in what amounts to mere cameos – for Meryl Streep, Hailee Steinfeld, James Spader, William Fichtner, and more.
What isn’t wasted is Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, full of calmness, spirit, and intensity at all the right moments. He’s completely at home in the role of a cantankerous, frank, gruff, and grizzled cowboy, concerned only with money and survival before discovering a righteous purpose he thought he could escape. Cuddy, though consumed with respectable religious proprieties, garners little sympathy for the tribulations she brings upon herself. She’s strong and determined (at first) but also unfit for making decisions in such an unforgiving environment. However, her uncommon mindset does lead to one of the greatest shocks seen in any recent picture. By the end, though unhurried and largely devoid of suspense, “The Homesman” features a couple of grandly poignant scenes that are just commanding enough to endure beyond the end credits.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)