Throughout her long career, Meryl has bounced around in different genres, starred as the main character in some films and appeared in smaller parts in others, and given audiences something unique and surprising each time out. She has rarely, however, made an appearance in a movie that felt like anything other than a favor to the film’s director. There have been films that she appeared in mostly due to the director’s persistence—Wes Craven famously had to write her a heartfelt letter before she changed her mind and signed on to 1999’s Music of the Heart—and there have been films of questionable merit that she has showed up in—the Farrelly Brothers’ Stuck on You and an awful and stiff 1990 television monstrosity called The Earth Day Special, in which she played the character of Concerned Citizen. But not until Tommy Lee Jones’ gorgeous looking but dramatically inert 2014 western The Homesman has Meryl been given such a tiny, thankless role. Appearing in no more than five minutes at the end of the movie, she does what she can with an underwritten part that gives her almost nothing to do.
When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, The Homesman looked prime to be a major year-end awards contender. Jones had before directed two television movies and one theatrical feature film—the acclaimed The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, also a western—and in a career that included terrific performances in films like Coal Miner’s Daughter and In the Valley of Elah, as well as an Oscar for his supporting role in The Fugitive, Jones looked like he might have finally done what Kevin Costner did with Dances With Wolves: excelled as both actor and director in a handsomely made western. The film offers a fantastic leading female role in Mary Bee Cutty, a part which two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank plays brilliantly from the first scene on. The supporting cast is filled with impressive names, everyone from John Lithgow to Hailee Steinfeld, from James Spader to Tim Blake Nelson. Even Meryl’s daughter Grace Gummer shows up in a major role.
Early reviews were positive, but while the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, who shot the similarly stunning Brokeback Mountain, is lush and gorgeous, The Homesman is a crushing bore, with little urgency in its sprawling narrative, and with only Swank in a solid performance, one that unfortunately is tempered with an unexpected (and unnecessary) plot twist. In 1850s Nebraska, Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank), single and yearning for an adventure, elects to travel across the country to round up three young women who have gone crazy. Toward the beginning of her journey, she encounters an older man George Briggs (Jones) who has been left for dead. Begging to be helped, George convinces Mary to let him join her. The two fight cold winter weather, tired horses, and a scarcity of food, and along the way, Mary starts to wonder if George may be the one who will agree to marry her, when no man before ever has.
The Homesman begins strong, when it focuses on Mary’s uneventful life at home, but as soon as she sets out on her cross-country trip, the film slows to almost a halt, mainly because George never amounts to a credible or interesting character, and the three crazy women offer little more than occasional screams and tantrums. Despite the wide open terrain featured in many wide establishing shots, so much of The Homesman makes the viewer feel claustrophobic, particularly in that middle hour where little conflict is to be had and the quiet quest toward an indiscernible destination becomes the movie’s only focus. By the time that destination is reached, little feels learned and accomplished, and the movie’s final scene, which features unexpected dancing on a ferry, is particularly weird and unsatisfying.
Jones’ Unforgiven this is not, but The Homesman is not all a missed opportunity. Jones and Swank have a nice chemistry together, and Swank is fantastic in her subtle performance, easily her best on screen since Million Dollar Baby. She creates a fully three dimensional character that the viewer fully understands from her first few scenes on—that is until she makes a decision later in the movie that feels wrong and manipulative; even if this big twist was featured in Glendon Swarthout’s novel, it could have been corrected in the screenplay. While some of the major actors appearing in small cameos are distracting—John Lithgow is a prime example—James Spader is effective as a wealthy wiseass named Aloysius Duffy who appears in a brief, enormously tense scene that offers one of the film’s few suspenseful moments. Tim Blake Nelson goes a little over-the-top in his cameo, but Hailee Steinfeld shares a nice moment with Jones at the end, and Jesse Plemons, from Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad, is so quietly affecting in his few scenes at the beginning that it’s a shame he didn’t get more screen-time.
Meryl plays Altha Carter, the woman who the three crazy women are ultimately turned over to in the film’s conclusion. She appears in three successive scenes that are so short that if someone goes to the bathroom right before she appears, he or she might not get back in time before her character disappears. It’s nice to see Meryl and Jones together again on-screen so soon after their delightful pairing in the comedy Hope Springs, and it’s especially unique to see Meryl share a scene with one of her daughters—Grace Gummer, who appeared in Larry Crowne and Frances Ha, and who also played Meryl’s baby in The House of the Spirits. However, Meryl here is given so little to do and say that almost nothing is discovered about her minor character, who ultimately could have been played by any actress over sixty. Altha obviously didn’t need to be the focus of the film, but she could have played a bigger role in the narrative in the film’s third act, rather than simply saying hello, thanks, and goodbye. The Homesman is a mediocre western with little to recommend about it, and anyone going to see it to catch a supporting turn by Meryl will unfortunately be sorely disappointed.