Back in 2005, Tommy Lee Jones made his directorial debut with the gritty (and somewhat gruesome) The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a neo-western with a distinctly Peckinpahvian flavor. Now he returns with The Homesman, an oddball oater about a cagey claim-jumper who partners with a stern spinster to take three madwomen to Iowa and thence to their homes back East. In contrast to Three Burials, this one counts as a retro-western—“retro” as in retrograde with regard to fundamental depictions of generic tropes, not as in old-school throwback.
The film was adapted by Jones and two other screenwriters from the novel by Glendon Swarthout, whose works have previously provided source material for the John Wayne swan song The Shootist and, perhaps more telling given The Homesman’s unwieldy mix of earnest intentions and batshit craziness, Stanley Kramer’s Bless the Beasts and Children, wherein a ragtag bunch of misfit campers derogatorily labeled the Bedwetters take on Great White Hunters involved in a wild buffalo safari. All this is to say that no doubt some of the problems inherent with The Homesman’s abrupt shifts in tone can be laid at the doorstep of the original novel.