The film was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or in the main competition section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and received a North American limited release on November 14, 2014 by Roadside Attractions. The Homesman has received mostly positive reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a rating average of 7.1/10.
The title refers to the task of taking immigrants back home, which was typically a man's job to carry out.
Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a 31-year-old spinster from New York, a former teacher who journeyed to the Midwest for more opportunity. She is an active member of the small farming community of Loup in the Nebraska Territory, and has significant financial prospects and sizable land ownership. She seems strong and independent, but suffers from depression and isolation. She makes dinner for her neighbor Bob Giffen (Evan Jones), and sings to him, but when she proposes he turns her down saying she is "plain, and too bossy"; he then leaves to find a wife back east.
After a harsh winter, three women from the community begin to show signs of mental instability due to the hardships they have faced. Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) has lost three children to diphtheria, Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) kills her own child after a poor harvest puts her family at risk of starvation, and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter), a Danish immigrant, is shown to be in an abusive relationship with her husband and suffers a breakdown after her mother dies. Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow) calls upon one of their husbands to escort the women eastward to a church in Hebron, Iowa that cares for the mentally ill. One of the men refuses to participate in the lottery to determine who will escort the women; Cuddy takes his place, and the lot falls on her.
While preparing for her journey, Cuddy encounters George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a claim jumper, who is about to be lynched for stealing Bob Giffen's land while he is away. Briggs begs Cuddy for help. Scared to make the trip alone, she frees him, and in return demands his help escorting the women. He immediately casts doubt on the job and insists he be free to abandon her at any time. To persuade him, Cuddy tells him that she is mailing $300 to await his arrival in Iowa, but secretly keeps it with her.
Briggs's experience comes in handy when the group crosses paths with hostile natives, and he is able to bribe them by giving up one of their horses. Later, when Arabella is kidnapped by a freighter (Tim Blake Nelson), Briggs gives chase, and the two men have a violent scuffle before Arabella kills her kidnapper. Eventually the caravan comes across the grave of an eleven-year-old girl that has been desecrated by Indians, and Cuddy insists they stop and restore it. Briggs vows to push on, so Cuddy stays behind and agrees to catch up with him. After restoring the grave, Cuddy sets out on horseback. However, she loses her way, and after riding all night discovers that she has gone in a circle and her horse has led her back to the grave.
Finally catching up to Briggs after another night of riding, Cuddy, distraught over having to wander the desert, suggests they marry. Briggs, like all the previous men, rejects Cuddy saying he "aint no farmer", and is only along for the promised reward. Later that night, a naked Cuddy propositions him, and despite his initial protestations, the two have sex. Rising late the next morning, Briggs finds that Cuddy has hanged herself. Briggs chastises Sours, Belknapp, and Svendsen, blaming their illness for Cuddy's death as he buries her body. He discovers that she had kept the $300 with her the entire time, and so takes a horse and abandons the three women. However, the trio surprisingly follow him on foot, and Arabella almost drowns while chasing him across a river. Briggs saves her and decides to continue taking them to Iowa instead.
Briggs seeks food and shelter at an empty hotel belonging to Aloysius Duffy (James Spader), who informs him that they have no rooms available for the caravan as a group of 16 investors are expected shortly, and the women would sour the establishment. Briggs lashes out at Duffy, whose men pull out guns of their own, resulting in a brief stand-off. Briggs leaves, but returns that night alone on horseback. He sends away the young cook, instructing her not to look back, and sets the hotel on fire, and shoots Duffy in the foot. Briggs takes a roasted pig to feed himself and the women and exits the hotel, leaving all inside to be burned alive.
Briggs reaches Hebron, passing the women into the care of Altha Carter (Meryl Streep), the wife of the church's reverend. He informs her of Cuddy's death but does not disclose the true cause. Guilty about having rejected Mary Bee's proposal, he has a wooden slab engraved with her name and plans to mark her grave with it. He gives a pair of shoes to Tabitha Hutchinson (Hailee Steinfeld), a hard-working young maid at the hotel he is staying at, and then proposes to her, after advising her not to marry some young man going west, but to stay in town. She replies by telling him "maybe". He then boards the river ferry heading back west, and starts to sing a rowdy song with two musicians onboard. When asked to stop, he chastises the people at the pier for wanting to go to the western territories, calling the west a "goddamn devil". Briggs returns to singing, and as the ferry departs, one of the bargemen kicks Mary Bee's marker into the river.
The film shows the unsparingly harsh and difficult life of early settlers of the American Midwest in the 1850s. The Homesman has been called a 'feminist western'. Critics have noted that the lives of women during this time are rarely explored, as opposed to men, while also commenting that women today are still having to balance many roles including the societal pressures for women to be married and have children and to be perfect wives and mothers.
The music by Marco Beltrami has received praise from critics. The score emphasizes the use of wind sounds to show how early settlers had to endure the constant wind without solid shelter, which imitates the character themes of being mentally undone by the elements that surround them. Beltrami used inventive measures such as using a "wind piano". Beltrami said the goal was to take the "warmth" out of the sound to dissipate the air.
The Homesman premiered on May 18, 2014, in competition at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. The film also was screened at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival, and the AFI Film Festival, among others. Saban Entertainment bought the film after Cannes for release, with Roadside Attractions joining to distribute the film in the U.S. EuropaCorp will distribute abroad. The film was limited-released in the United States on November 14, 2014, with plans to expand over following months.
The Homesman has received mostly positive reviews from critics, with particulars standing out being Swank's performance, the cinematography, score, and costumes. Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an 81% approval rating based on 141 reviews, with a rating average of 7.1/10. The site's consensus: "A squarely traditional yet somewhat progressive Western, The Homesman adds another absorbing entry to Tommy Lee Jones' directorial résumé". Metacritic gave the film a score of 68/100 based on 43 critics, indicating generally favorable reviews.
Betsy Sharkey with the Los Angeles Times wrote: "Swank and Jones, in particular, are a very good odd couple, playing saint and sinner, sometimes reversing the roles. What the directing side of Jones does best is to cede the spotlight to his star. He builds a strong platform for Swank to take on yet another woman who refuses to be bound by gender conventions".
Andrew O'Hehir with Salon wrote: "Swank gives a magnificent performance as a woman whose calm and capable exterior cannot completely conceal her worsening desperation. In its unsentimental poetry, its stripped-down imagery and its unforgettable lead performances, 'The Homesman' is a ruthless western classic . . . cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s harsh, horizontal landscapes—like the haunting, unsettling score by Marco Beltrami—are anything but picturesque and reassuring, and serve to support a strikingly bleak portrait of life on the 19th-century American frontier".
Claudia Puig with USA Today wrote: "Set on the Great Plains in the mid-1800s, 'The Homesman' aims for a story that's poignant and told sparely, but comes across as mawkish, tedious and self-indulgent. Swank brings a gravitas to her character that is undermined when some of her antics are played for laughs. In a 10-minute cameo, Meryl Streep's character is more fully developed than any of the leads' roles. The story attempts to show how hard it was for women in the Old West, but it ends up being Jones' surly show".