The title refers to a homesteader or pioneer dirt farmer in the bleak frontier of the 19th century. The film tells the story of a spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (played by Hilary Swank) who ends up taking three broken women back east because they can't endure life on the prairie. The women have all gone insane. In fact, the life of the settlers as depicted is so bleak it's a wonder that anyone hasn't gone insane out there.
Transporting three mad women across the wilderness on a odyssey that will last months is a hellish task, and Cuddy is lucky enough to enlist the help of a lovable rogue called George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones). As they spar and argue and surmount hardships together, the roughneck and the old maid, we seem to be in for a classic budding romance and comedy adventure in the mould of The African Queen.
Boy, does this movie not go there. It develops in a completely unforeseen way — it's harrowing, bleak and profoundly shocking. In fact it ends with a dark, existential flourish worthy of Monte Hellman or John Huston at his most grim and anti-commercial (Fat City, say).
The ad campaign for The Homesman trumpets that it's the best western since Unforgiven. Maybe so. But that's a misleading comparison. For all its revisionist brilliance, David Peoples' script for Unforgiven followed the conventional contours of the western action movie. The Homesman is anything but that.
Well worth seeing, though.
(Image credits: The poster with the two faces close together is from Wikipedia. The rest are from Ace Show Biz as usual.)