Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a woman of property in 19th century Nebraska — which doesn’t help her marriage prospects one bit. As the menfolk constantly remind her, Cuddy isn’t much to look at. Plus, she’s way too bossy. By that they mean that she’s too independent, which simply isn’t in keeping with the worldview of a frontier male.
The price of her independence is loneliness. So when it becomes necessary to transport three traumatized women from Nebraska to a home back East, Mary Bee consents to the job. She understands that the long journey will be dangerous, but she’s also weary of being the spinster whom everyone pities.
Along the way, Mary Bee comes to the rescue of a cantankerous coot named George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), who is several horse steps away from being hanged.
Mary Bee quickly points out to George that he’s in her debt, and that she expects his help in getting to her destination. And slowly, the two develop a grudging respect for each other. Could that connection possibly lead to romance?
Directed and co-written by Jones, “The Homesman” recalls “Unforgiven” in its gritty insistence on de-romanticizing one of the great American film genres, the Western. The story is as bleak as the terrain that Mary Bee and George are forced to cross. Yet Jones makes us care about these mismatched outsiders.
Unfortunately, a late and wholly unexpected narrative turn severely undermines the story, which never quite recovers. Still, the performances are among the best of the year.
Swank, an Oscar winner for “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby,” is outstanding, getting to the essence of Mary Bee’s pride and pain. And in the showier role, Jones impressively peels away layers of rambunctiousness to reveal George’s humanity.
“The Homesman” doesn’t quite achieve classic status. But these days, the very attempt is something to be celebrated.
What “The Homesman” • Three stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 2:00 • Content Violence, sexual content, disturbing behavior, nudity