Grade: B-

Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Starring Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter

The western is a difficult genre to explore. Eastwood may have been the last director to do it right with Unforgiven. While Tommy Lee Jones attempts greatness with a spectacular premise and beautiful cinematography, The Homesman stumbles with less-than-great performances and a muddled pace.

Set in the great American Midwest, the first chapter sets out to introduce us to Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a woman living an unconventional western life. She is a financially comfortable pioneer woman, though she isn't completely secure emotionally. Her attempt to woo a possible suitor ends tragically embarrassing. Her determined confidence may get in the way of her abilities to be the simpleminded housewife most cattlemen are looking for. This determination also leads Mary Bee to getting herself signed up to haul three crazed women across the country to an east coast pastor's wife who has promised to take care of the women. Along the way she meets a claim jumper named George Briggs (Jones) who is anything but endearing. The pair carry the rest of the film until an untimely twist leads one of the characters through a change of heart. Or, has it?

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout and generally seems to follow a pretty steady plot. The dialogue is understandably direct and fits perfectly into the atmosphere being created. The same can be said for the rest of the creative elements. The production design is beautifully accurate, including both sets and lack thereof. The score is rich and will definitely warrant a few awards, if not an Oscar nomination. The cinematography is perhaps the best aspect of the creative process here. The open landscapes are breathtaking. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, previously nominated for Brokeback Mountain, will definitely find himself among next year's Academy Award nominees.

So, how can a film with all of the right pieces fall into the pool of disappointment? Part of the blame goes to two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, who can't quite seem to find the right mix of emotions in the character of Mary Bee Cuddy. She comes across as more of a strange caricature than an actual character. There are a few moments of sincerity that do work, but they are few and far between. Jones can equally be found guilty. His Briggs teeters on being a redux of every character Jones has played. As the film's director, he also allows the pace to differ too much as the film ebbs on. Some scenes feel like small vignettes, unattached from the overall picture. As for the other performers, it's Meryl Streep who seems most comfortable in her character's skin (naturally). Though she only shows up briefly, her scenes have the most honest moments.

The Homesman benefits from being presented in a nice package. It's not the best movie of the year, and will not rank among the best modern westerns, but it's a humble try that is successful at keeping your attention, if not just for the stunning visuals.

Rating: R
Runtime: 122 minutes

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