It pains me to write a review for a movie like The Homesman, which is a well made, beautifully shot, entertaining and slightly offbeat feminist western, of all things, that unfortunately makes a crucial error in its screenplay about two thirds of the way through, with an event so jarring that it proves detrimental to the entire film as a result. You see something like that and think, well, one badly written event can't possibly take a whole movie down, but in this case, it really does and it's so critical to the plot and the story arc up until that scene that it leaves a bad taste in the viewer's mouth, and the film is unsalvageable as a whole after that moment, even if individual scenes are still quite good.
Tommy Lee Jones co-wrote and directed The Homesman, which is based on a novel and in it he does a very rare thing, which is to tell a western tale from a woman's point of view, something hardly ever done in the long history of movie westerns. Women in this universe have usually been regarded as one of two things- prostitutes or docile housewives, never a part of the action themselves. Of course, that was historically accurate- the American west of the 19th century was vast, lawless, and dangerous for all women, even those with husbands to provide for them. Rape was an ever present threat, along with robbery and murder, possibly at the hands of strangers, Indians, any and all men that built the West through savagery and John Wayne toughness. It was never a place that had much room for women, least of all single women, which is the role our protagonist, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) plays in this movie. She's a lone single woman who runs her own home in a tiny little Nebraskan town (and I do mean tiny- the population looks to be about eight people), which includes tending the fields and handling the crops, essentially all on her own. We're not sure why she's there, just that she apparently made the trip herself, leaving a family back home in New York, to try her hand at the new frontier. That will ultimately prove to be a mistake, as Cuddy herself realizes she can't survive long without a husband, and proposes herself to a caller in the opening scene, a man who turns her down flat for being plain and bossy. In other words, too unladylike.
A tragedy hits the blossoming town when it's realized by the parish that three of the town's female citizens (two wives and a sister of some of the men) have lost their minds due to the various severe tolls that life on the frontier has taken, and must be transported across the Missouri river and delivered to a preacher's wife who will arrange for their safe passage back east. When no men volunteer for the job, Mary Bee declares herself up to the task and takes it upon herself to transport the women, feeling it's God's duty to ensure them a better life than what has now fallen upon them through no fault of their own. Of course, she's smart enough to know that her determination alone will never guarantee the success of this trip, and when she sees a man strapped in a noose to a tree, she saves his life in exchange for assisting her on the long and arduous journey. That man is Tommy Lee Jones of course, who plays to his familiar strengths as the tough and grizzled rascal George Briggs, and the two develop a fine partnership as he undertakes the task alongside her. From that point onward there are twists and turns that are fairly unpredictable (the one I mentioned earlier being the most startling) but always well-paced, and the vast array of midwestern landscapes are incredibly well shot, conveying the empty hollowness and enormous space of a wild new land that eventually drove each of the female passengers crazy (we get flashbacks to the horrors that all of them have undergone in their pasts).
But the movie belongs to Hilary Swank as Mary Bee, who's perfectly cast as the stoic yet strong and capable homesman of the title (at least until a certain point), and to develop the film from her perspective was to create a movie that gives us a very fresh take on a genre with thousands of entries, almost entirely male dominated, to its name. Which brings us to the major error in the story, of which is impossible to go into detail without spoiling the film, and so I can't explain exactly what happens that knocks a perfectly fine western just under the bar of recommendation. But I will say that as one of several offbeat and unpredictable twists in the film, this is one that serves no purpose but to alienate the viewer entirely, and change the tone so dramatically that it never quite recovers its footing. It was handled badly, should have been spotted at the screenplay level, and with maybe just a couple of rewrites, it would not have played to the story's detriment, no matter how it may have come across in the novel. Adaptations are changed for a reason, and that mistake has to be laid at the feet of the movie's director and writer. It's truly a shame, because otherwise he had made a very good movie, with good performances and a starkly feminist take on the Old West, and that's something we don't get nearly enough of, with the genre itself something of a dying breed these days. Quite a shame indeed.
* * 1/2