“The rough lot handed to women in the Old West remains a footnote in the cinematic history of cowboy days, but it figures front and center in The Homesman,” begins the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy. “Tommy Lee Jones’s adaptation of the late Glendon Swarthout’s flavorful 1988 novel is both lyrical and shocking, weirdly funny and grimly serious. Fronted by fine and wise performances by Hilary Swank as a self-sufficient unmarried pioneer charged with transporting three insane women back East and by Jones himself as a shiftless claim-jumper obliged to help her, this beautifully crafted film intrigues as a story never told before and ratchets up dramatic interest through a succession of unexpected turns.”
Jones “has a muscular and confident command of narrative, driving the plot onward with a real whip-crack, and easily handles the tonal swings between brutal shock, black comedy and sentimentality,” finds the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “This is a frontier tale with something of the classic style of Stagecoach or 3:10 to Yuma, but also the consciously grimmer, austerer feel of Kelly Reichardt‘s Meek’s Cutoff and indeed Jones’s own The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.”
“‘People like to talk about death and taxes, but when it comes to crazy, they stay hushed up,’ notes a townsperson in the hardscrabble Nebraska Territories where the seemingly linear but surprisingly unpredictable story begins.” Variety‘s Peter Debruge: “Captured in widescreen by Babel DP Rodrigo Prieto and hauntingly underscored by composer Marco Beltrami’s piano-and-string themes, this is different topography from that of John Ford movies: flat and forlorn open prairie, absent of water and trees. Though there’s a natural appeal to the unspoiled American outdoors, these vistas aren’t presented as scenic per se (effectively denying one of the pleasures the Western genre typically delivers), and it’s not a place one would want to be left stranded alone, much less one to share with three wailing women.”
At the Film Stage, Peter Labuza argues that The Homesman “will necessarily be compared to the work of Clint Eastwood” and that it “lacks all the interior meaning that has defined the latter director’s work…. Jones might have captured the period detail in his Western (aping shots directly from Unforgiven and The Searchers), but the psychological motivations of the characters are left largely unexplored.”
“Mary Bee, as played by Swank (who’s the best she’s been in some time here), is a fairly somber and serious figure,” writes Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist, “and her arc follows as such, while Jones, channeling Walter Matthau to some degree, is a broader figure, a sort of wackier, less stable Rooster Cogburn. They’re designed as an odd couple (who, obviously, come to a kind of mutual respect), but they’re odd enough that the film feels terribly uneven, swinging from buddy-comedy to bleak pioneer drama and back again in the space of five minutes.”
“When a character early in The Homesman gives Mary Bee a sendoff on her mission by declaring her ‘as good a man as any man hereabouts,’ she becomes the heroine of the movie by virtue of being made an honorary man,” suggests Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com. “The women who comprise the norm in The Homesman are the stay-at-home wives or the three madwomen who couldn’t hack the hardship of life on the prairie or the abuse of their men. They’re all more or less props in the service of the plot, making Swank’s Mary—tough, resilient and fearless—the anti-norm.”
“Curiously funny when it’s not tragic or bluntly sentimental, The Homesman is one of the weirdest American westerns since Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, though hardly as cohesive,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “Jones’s alternately skillful and irreverent approach results in a mixed bag of possibilities, with many terrifically entertaining on their own even as the overall picture remains muddled.”
“The set-up could well suggest a tale in the tradition of The African Queen or True Grit where a booze-sodden reprobate finds redemption through his association with a virtuous woman,” notes Allan Hunter in Screen Daily. “The Homesman opts for a less conventional, less sentimental narrative.” All in all, “Lyrical and touching with nicely-etched moments from a supporting cast that includes John Lithgow and Meryl Streep.”
Updates: “She’s pious and uptight, he’s vulgar and mercenary, and it’s just a matter of time before the hardships they jointly experience bridge the gulf between them,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “About two-thirds of the way through the movie, however, something unexpected occurs (I honestly can’t remember the last time I was caught so off guard by a narrative development), which seems to push it into much nervier territory… Subsequent events don’t really bear that interpretation out, though, and the way Jones’ newly dandified character is treated in the finale suggests that The Homesman views him and Mary Bee as kindred spirits—an admirably humanist viewpoint, to be sure, but not the angry ideological earth-scorcher that would have provoked interesting conversations.”
For the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd, “any hope that The Homesman will genuinely deal with mental illness in 18th-century women fades quickly, as the three passengers are essentially portrayed as a collective, fidgety MacGuffin—the driving force of the quest, not unlike the dead body in Three Burials. Jones flirts with making a Western with gender on the brain, but his interests prove considerably more common. It’s called The HomesMAN, remember.”
Writing for Sight & Sound, Geoff Andrew “suspects that the likes of the Coens or Clint Eastwood could and would have made a stronger version of this story.”
“It doesn’t help that Swank never finds a way into this highly unappealing character, or that Jones (mostly phoning in the pitiable surliness) avoids delving very deeply into the story’s feminist undercurrents,” adds Time Out‘s Keith Uhlich.
“Swank, an actress often unfairly dinged by detractors for relying on a hardness that Hollywood rarely finds imaginative ways to exploit, is in fine fettle here,” finds Guy Lodge at In Contention. “Ever a stern, empathic performer, she conveys Cuddy’s decency and concern for others in a way that makes especially heartbreaking the lack of love she receives in return. But I wonder if Jones’ film is among the majority that turns against her, too often playing her earnestness for laughs, and her insecurities as female hysteria not a world away from that of her shaking, shrieking wards.”
“Equally dubious are The Homesman‘s intimations that it cares about the plight and position of madness within society,” adds Budd Wilkins at the House Next Door.
Jordan Hoffman at Film.com: “There are a few moments where Jones makes good use of the location—scenes of snowfall and a desperate pre-dawn ride echoing O’Toole in the Nefud from Lawrence of Arabia, but this movie will not put you in a Meek’s Cutoff-like daze. It goes all-in on its characters, which is a poor choice as everyone except Swank’s Cuddy is annoying.”
The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin defends the “shocking narrative swerve comes halfway through the final act”: “To me, it read more like a refusal to sugar-coat the pill: a woman’s lot in the 1850s on the American frontier was phenomenally rough, and Jones’s film stays true to that.”
“With The Homesman, Jones has produced an original and cantankerously offbeat western which becomes increasingly beguiling as the road stretches on,” writes John Bleasdale at CineVue.
Updates, 5/19: “Thematically, it’s aligned with the finest work of B-movie master Budd Boetticher, who traverses prickly psychological situations hidden inside lean and mean genre set-ups,” writes Glenn Heath Jr for Little White Lies. “Both filmmakers are interested in the call and response that occurs between people who feel the need to take a stand and those who decide silence is the key to survival. The Homesman has its fair share of tonal shifts, which is already proving a breaking point for a lot of critics. But one can attribute its wild swerves to the deep sadness felt in even the smallest moments.”
“Swank makes an argument that she’s the most captivating star in American movies,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland. “You see her and your heart is with her, even when you’re not with the movie. It’s just no-nonsense film-star stuff that almost no one is sincere enough to do now…. Her strength isn’t a put-on. It’s real, and in the movies it’s often a source of unease for men. They don’t know what to do with that mix of goodness and fortitude. You find it everywhere in life, but almost nowhere in Hollywood.”
Update, 5/24: “While some are sure to embrace the superficial revisionist attempt at providing us with a feminist subtext, Jones actually manages to accomplish the opposite with a film that only highlights a male perspective’s well-meaning but misguided interpretation of a story about women,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. “As it completely sells out on its main female protagonist, it’s clear that the project is merely a vanity piece where a multitude of characters are only utilized to compliment his presence, as well as a moment of convenient (and false pathos).”
Update, 11/9: “The first two acts of The Homesman are as ungainly and interesting as its main characters,” writes Christopher Gray for Slant. “The film enacts plenty of contradictions: It situates the model of a Strong Female Character alongside three other women who are exploited for suspense and shock value, places convincingly iconoclastic figures in tried-and-true western tropes, and manages to project a consistency of vision despite an erratic tone. All of this strange intrigue falls by the wayside in the final act, where Jones’s Briggs comes to dominate the proceedings and the film betrays too many of the tics of a vanity project.”
Updates, 11/10: The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane suggests that The Homesman may appear to those who haven’t yet seen it as “not just a period drama but a drama that could have been made in another age. Certainly, there is a sturdiness to it, and a stubborn want of haste, that might have earned an approving growl from John Ford. But Jones, though defiantly unhip, gives off a desperate bleakness—visible in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), his début as a big-screen director—that roots him squarely in our time.”
Writing for Film Comment, Robert Horton notes that “the film has considerable peculiarities: I can only assume that its lukewarm reception at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year had to do with its wide tonal range. Either that or people were disappointed that The Homesman wasn’t the feminist Western they were expecting—it is a feminist Western, but despite Swank’s strong work and the theme of women mistreated by men, this is still a story about Briggs, and the hardness of the West. There are moments of wry comedy—some of them courtesy of one-scene actors such as James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson—and prairie philosophizing, but also stray absurdities, and sudden violence, and one upsetting plot turn that seems questionable at first but eventually feels appropriately sad and stirring.”
Updates, 11/12: “At times, this unconventional Western verges on becoming one of the angriest feminist statements in recent memory,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “All the same, there’s a wishy-washiness to the film’s ideological bent that keeps steering things in a more conventional direction, as if Jones (or perhaps Glendon Swarthout, who wrote the source novel) were afraid to take this risky material all the way. It’s a decidedly bumpy ride to an odd destination.”
Pete Vonder Haar in the Voice: “Jones knows frontier life wasn’t just perilous for women; the men of The Homesman are poor specimens in their own right. Briggs is a deserter (at best), while the stricken women’s respective husbands run the gamut from ‘useless’ to ‘rapist.'”
Danny King for the L: “If it can’t be said that Jones has produced a cohesive work with The Homesman, it can’t be denied that the movie is stuffed with moments that are genuinely—often bafflingly—unexpected.”
Updates, 11/13: “Integrity and personality can go a long way, especially in a movie as unquestionably flawed as The Homesman,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “Tommy Lee Jones’ off-beat minor-key Western has plenty of virtues, but straightness isn’t one of them; at times, it seems like the movie is doing its goshdarnedest to stay crooked, resisting every opportunity to smooth itself out. It trades in unresolved themes, unexplained motifs, and abrupt bursts of violence, meandering its way to a fittingly inscrutable final image of Jones’s character, a drifter who calls himself George Briggs, dancing a jig for no one in particular.”
“The first thing that you should know before watching Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman is that it operates under the fundamental assumption that everyone who took part in the settling of the American West was, by almost any contemporary standard, insane,” writes Nick Pinkerton at Reverse Shot. “The second thing you should know is that this madness is not, absolutely, thought of as a bad thing in the film—that there is, in the final reckoning, even something a little defiant, a little triumphal in it. It’s an indivisible possession, a good-luck charm, a means for getting through the days without end.”
Ti West (The Sacrament) opens his discussion at the Talkhouse Film with a quote from Jones: “This film was built to be seen more than once. It is built to get better, and live a long time and reward you every time you see it. We want to make movies that want to be seen again.” West: “The more I think about it, the more I find that Jones’s film represents a certain kind of ‘reality filmmaking.’ The Homesman reminds us of the unpleasant, oppressive challenges men and women faced in our country’s history, but also that most modern filmmaking does not usually look to engage an audience beyond their basic threshold of ‘entertainment.'”
Updates, 11/14: “As an actor, Mr. Jones is well within his comfort zone playing an irascible old coot,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “As a director, he is both canny and bold, dropping bits of backwoods humor into an austere landscape dominated by violence and anguish.”
“Heroism as traditionally defined is practiced by women here, though it goes unrewarded to say the least,” writes Ella Taylor for NPR. “Jones has said, somewhat enigmatically, that he sees in The Homesman‘s women ‘the origin of the female condition today.’ When you see what becomes of Mary, this might give you pause, and I’d hesitate to call the film a bright new day for feminism.”
“The final section of the film is suddenly conventional, and represents a confused petering-out of strength, a tame meandering coda to the chaotic thrust of the story,” writes Sheila O’Malley at RogerEbert.com. “It’s almost like The Homesman, barreling along at a high speed, powerful and weird and funny and terrible, hits an invisible speed bump all of a sudden, and the pieces fly apart. But the conventional coda cannot erase the risk-filled pleasure of all that came before.”
Updates, 11/15: “In its own unshowy way,” writes Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir, “The Homesman is a profoundly compassionate, subversive and tragic story about the unacknowledged sacrifices made by women throughout history, about the tenuous bonds of community and mutual obligation that make human life possible and about the thin, wavering line that separates civilization from anarchy.”
“As sere and slow as the region it describes, The Homesman refuses to be a likeable film,” writes Lisa Rosman at Word & Film. “Yet it is all the more compelling for its lack of accommodation, partly because of the unabashedly feminist perspective it takes on the pitfalls of Manifest Destiny and partly because of its fidelity to its source material.”
Vulture‘s Bilge Ebiri is “impressed with how Jones’s uncomfortable mixing of tones in the first half of the film gave way to something more elegiac and evocative by the end. For much of its running time, The Homesman doesn’t quite seem to know where it’s going. But once it actually gets there, it attains a hardscrabble nobility.”
Update, 11/16: “Tommy Lee Jones strikes me as a guy who does what he damn well pleases, and like Three Burials before it The Homesman is a stubbornly uncommercial and richly challenging inversion of Americana,” writes Sean Burns.
Update, 11/17: Rory Carroll interviews Jones: “I don’t think there’s a woman in the readership of the Guardian, not one, who hasn’t been objectified or trivialized because of her gender at one time or another. And that’s really what our movie is about.”
Updates, 11/23: “Are arthouse westerns on the rise?” asks James Clarke at Little White Lies, where Glenn Heath Jr. writes: “Using tropes perfected by Anthony Mann in The Naked Spur, Jones litters this road film scenario with multiple divots; directions (physical and psychological) change more than once depending on sudden shifts in character motivation and violent external forces. Within this context, the female soul is constantly misunderstood, abused and exiled by the surrounding rustic tableaux. Patriarchy isn’t entirely to blame; cowardice is the real root of evil in The Homesman.”
More from Sam Adams (Philadelphia City Paper, B), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 4/5) and Mark Kermode (Observer, 3/5). Interviews with Swank: Kyle Buchanan (Vulture) and Susan Wloszczyna (RogerEbert.com). And more interviews with Jones: Robbie Collin (Telegraph) and Catherine Shoard and Henry Barnes (Guardian).
Updates, 11/29: “The Homesman is a story about the human toll of our nation’s westward expansion, about the frontier that cruelly consumed the hopes and sanity of some settlers while at the same time providing freedom and prosperity to others,” writes Marjorie Baumgarten. And the film “literally reverses course to peek at the abandoned ruins of lives lost to the frontier, the human potential plowed over like last year’s crop.” Also in the Austin Chronicle, Mike Agresta interviews screenwriter Kieran Fitzgerald.
“The Homesman stands out as a strange and eccentric western that merits viewing on the biggest screen possible,” writes Glenn Heath Jr. in the San Diego CityBeat. “Defiantly progressive in theme and beautifully classical in style, the film functions as a striking portrait of female fortitude constantly being pressured and limited by male indecisiveness.”