A western unlike most others; it is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, a name that might ring a bell: he also wrote The Shootist, the novel that formed the base of John Wayne's last hurrah.
Hilary Swank is Mary Bee, a 31-year old frontierswoman and a spinster; she owns a piece of land, but can't find a husband because she is homely looking - at least she thinks that is the reason (others rather think she's too "bossy"). To take her mind off things, Mary Bee accepts the job of escorting three women who were driven mad by the harsh frontier life to a safe home in the East (This was a job that was usually done by a man, who was therefore called a homesman). The journey is expected to be harsh and perilous, therefore Mary Bee saves a low-life (director Tommy Lee himself) from the noose and employs him as her bodyguard and traveling companion.
The Homesman is Tommy Lee's second feature film as a director; like his first effort, The three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, it is a literate, flashback-driven movie. The flashbacks illustrate the plight of the three women and some of scenes are both shocking and heartbreaking, but their insertion into the narrative seems a bit arbitrary and they often works more confusing than illuminating. The storyline involves villains and even Indians, but there's hardly any western action, the movie is a period drama rather than a western. (text continues under the pic)
This doesn't mean that the film is without merit. The director once said that he loved the art of the Dutch and Flemish masters of the Golden Age and in one scene (a lonely woman in a shadowy interior, the light coming from the left) is a clear reference to Vermeer's paintings. The darkened, stale interiors offer a sharp contrast to the bleached skies over the plains that reflect the harshness of life on the frontier.
Visually The Homesman is stunning, but these type of westerns, in which not too much happens, need strong characters and in spite of the presence of two of the best actors around, I felt little or no connection to either Hilary Swanks or Tommy Lee's character. The three unlucky women (played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have no dialogue and most of what the two lead characters have to say to each other, remains unsaid.
And then there's this bizarre plot-twist, two thirds into the movie. I won't say what it implies exactly - you need to find out yourself - but like some have said, it turns a movie that tries to show the harshness of life for women on the frontier, into a showcase for a male actor.
* Grace Gummer, who plays one of the unlucky women, is Meryl Streep's daughter. Streep has a cameo near the end of the movie as the reverend's wife