The on-screen presence of Hilary Swank is such a rarity that I was excited to see her performance alongside Tommy Lee Jones in what appeared to be a potentially fascinating, twisted Western.
Gone however, are the days of Million Dollar Baby and in its place we have Swank playing the stony-faced, bonnet-wearing Mary Bee Cuddy, an unmarried frontier woman saddled with the task of transporting three women who have been driven insane across the river to Iowa.
Swank’s brilliance does occasionally shine through, as Cuddy’s sanity too begins to break; however the characters all tread a bizarrely fine line between severity and farce. We have, for example Jones’ character himself, the boozy claim-jumper who will break randomly into song, just to show that he too is a bit nutty. The three women transported verge on a cliched vision of madness, bashing their heads against wagon wheels and wailing in unison. Had the background of these female parts been explored in more depth, it would have made for a much more engaging and probing film, the flashbacks supplied of their pasts only provide fleeting moments of ill-treatment or hardship, their actual slip into madness is not depicted.
Though this makes the three women less interesting characters, it does clear the way for Cuddy’s own failing sanity to take the forefront, and it is here that Swank truly shines, her breakdown is so slow we almost don’t see it coming. The handling of themes such as loneliness and depression are done with a well-observed and thoughtful touch, Cuddy’s lonesome existence exemplified in the stunning panoramic vistas we have of the South – indeed it cannot be denied that the cinematography is superb.
However, the slow-pace of the film seems somewhat out of place with the premise of three lunatics faced with a journey beset by Indians and freight-trainers, indeed the action very much takes a back seat.
Though beautifully shot and containing some insightful elements, The Homesman does not really deliver on its promising premise, it chooses not to be an action-packed Western, or a probing psychological exploration, but falls gently between the two, leaving the viewer somewhat confused as to its intention.