Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
Written by: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Hailee Steinfeld, William Fichtner, Meryl Streep
Synopsis: A claim jumper and a pioneer woman team up to escort three insane women from Nebraska to Iowa.
Why it could succeed:
Life is hard sometimes, but it could be a lot worse. You could, for example, be a woman in the 1850’s in the American West. Back then, life was so demanding on them that it was not uncommon for them to lose their minds. The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones’s return as a feature film director since The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada almost ten years ago, is the adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s tale of how these barely-developed settlements dealt with this apparently widespread problem despite it being almost-never discussed or admitted to.
One community in Nebraska decides to hold a drawing among the husbands of the afflicted women. The unlucky “winner” of that drawing would take them to a sanitarium in Iowa while the other two (actually, in the novel there where three…not sure why Otto and Hedda Petzke were cut from the movie) supplied him with the necessary provisions to survive the five-week trip. Then the facility would temporarily lodge them until they could be delivered to their families. Unfortunately, the winner this year is a wretched cur named Vester Belknap (William Fichtner) who refuses to do what needs to be done, and so an ex-teacher and spinster named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) steps up to the task. Knowing that she can’t possibly do this on her own, she reluctantly enlists the help of grubby claim-jumper George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) to assist her.
The journey that these two characters take with their mentally broken passengers is a harrowing one that nearly breaks them, and is ripe for a major drama that could steal the Academy’s hearts. If the novel weren’t written in 1988 I would have suspected author Glendon Swarthout had written it specifically to be adapted into a Swank starring vehicle because Mary Bee Cuddy is a character almost tailor-made for her, right down to her physical features. Not only is she a heroic character that voters can easily rally behind, but is also one filled with self-doubt, fear, loneliness and a host of other internal conflicts that will flex her acting muscles more than any character she’s played since Brandon Teena.
While Tommy Lee Jones strikes me as a little old to play George Briggs, his acting chops will also be on full display with the most dramatic arc in the story, starting off as a selfish oaf forced into the most selfless and noble act of his life. As a director he has the opportunity to further the considerable potential he showed with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
The rest of the cast – including the insane women – don’t have characters nearly as meaty as the leads, though Miranda Otto’s Theoline Belknapp has a doozy of an opening in the novel that might be enough to get her some serious Supporting Actress consideration. It was originally rumored that Meryl Streep would be playing one of the broken passengers, but her character has actually been revealed to be Altha Carter, the head of the asylum. She only appears at the end of the story and I doubt she’ll have enough for even the superfans to latch onto for a strong Oscar campaign.
Since this is a period piece, there’s a good chance this movie will show up in several crafts categories including Cinematography, Costume Design and Makeup & Hairstyling.
Not really an awards season factor, but interesting: if this movie makes it to a Best Picture nomination, it’ll be the first Oscar nod of prolific producer Luc Besson’s career.
Why it might not:
This movie, with all of its dramatic potential, will almost certainly be classified as a western, which has a hit-or-miss track record with the Academy; pioneer movies even less so. Also, Glendon Swarthout adaptations haven’t been exactly gangbusters on the awards racket in the past; Bless the Beasts & Children managed only a single Oscar nomination (for Best Original Song) and so did The Shootist (Best Art Direction-Set Decoration).
Oh, and remember The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada that I mentioned earlier? Not a major Oscar success either, despite being a great movie. Obviously directorial debuts – even from recognizable names like Tommy Lee Jones – can have an uphill climb to awards recognition, it may be the case that mournful, stark westerns just don’t resonate with voters.
There’s also the artistic shortcomings of the story…though I’ll admit that I’m about to inject my own opinions over actual awards speculation. As interesting a character as George Briggs was, his pairing with Mary Bee felt awfully contrived even if I were to buy the author’s assertion that she couldn’t have made the trek on her own. It almost felt as though Swarthout was hoping for a film adaptation and decided that a male co-lead would make the story more palatable to producers and…actually, you know what? That might not be such a problem after all.
Finally, and this is an awards season factor: Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp has never produced a film in its seventeen-year existence that came within spitting distance of Oscar success. Even if the film is a critical smash, they might lack the resources and know-how to launch a successful Oscar campaign.
Picture (Luc Besson, Peter Brant, Michael Fitzgerald, Tommy Lee Jones, Brian Kennedy)
Director (Tommy Lee Jones)
Lead Actress (Hilary Swank)
Lead Actor (Tommy Lee Jones)
Supporting Actress (Miranda Otto)
Adapted Screenplay (Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver)
Original Score (Marco Beltrami)
Cinematography (Rodrigo Prieto)
Film Editing (Roberto Silvi)
Costume Design (Lahly Poore)
Makeup & Hairstyling