By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Westerns aren’t necessarily “cowboy movies,” as The Homesman makes abundantly clear early on.

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The title notwithstanding, this western is about women heading east, as director Tommy Lee Jones trains his cameras on the Old West from an uncustomary angle, representing subject matter that we have not seen much of on the movie screen over the years.

Would that the execution was as satisfying as the intention.

(2 stars out of 4)

(2 stars out of 4)

Based on the novel of the same name, the femme-centric The Homesman is a despairing glimpse at the grim reality women faced in the somber Old West, a chapter of the American past that has been more or less overlooked.

Hilary Swank plays brusque, determined, resourceful Mary Bee Cuddy (called “Cuddy”), an independent spinster in her early thirties who has built up her 1850s Nebraska homestead on her own, but has never been seen as marriage material in the eyes of the men in the vicinity.

So there seems to be something missing in her difficult life, but at least she hasn’t had to deal with a sexually abusive husband or the death of a child, as more than a few local married women have.

Three of those women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) are seen as crazy and need to be taken to a psychiatric facility connected with a Methodist church in faraway Iowa –- a lengthy, intimidating wagon journey through harsh, dangerous terrain.

Compassionately, Cuddy volunteers for the assignment and manipulates a cantankerous claim-jumper and former Army deserter named George Briggs (played by director Jones), whom she has just rescued from a hanging that he was headed for at the hands of vigilantes for the crime of trespassing… surely not the only crime he has committed.

Together, this odd couple escorts the three deranged women to Iowa, where they’re welcomed by a minister’s wife played, in a small role in the late going, by Meryl Streep.

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And as the rigorous road trip continues, Cuddy, her vulnerability peeking out from behind her crusty surface strength as she contemplates matrimony as a sensible business arrangement, finds herself sizing up Briggs as a potential husband.

Jones’ desire to highlight the plight of pioneer women in the west and the deprivations that accompanied life on the plains -– usually a movie footnote rather than a premise -– is an admirable undertaking.

Unfortunately, he lets his idiosyncratic movie ricochet between severe melodrama and occasional quirky dark comedy.  And in so doing, he lets this skewed look at a bleak and depressing existence eventuate into a bleak and depressing viewing experience.  We find ourselves muttering, “Get on with it,” but the meandering movie refuses to cooperate.

To call the pacing deliberate would be to understate the case.  Glacial would be a more accurate assessment.

This is Jones’ second directing stint on a feature film (2005’s The Three Burials of Melquades Estrada was the first), although he has also helmed two telemovies.

The Homesman screenplay, which Jones co-wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, based on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, doesn’t serve the film’s stars well, and director Jones fails to get winning on-screen work out of himself or Swank.

So we’ll transport 2 stars out of 4 for the offbeat western drama, The Homesman, in which the tragic and the comic, seated next to each other in a covered wagon, make for mismatched traveling companions.

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