In the Nebraska Territory sometime before the Civil War, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) has managed to build and maintain a successful farm and homestead without the aid of a husband. Despite her strength and self-reliance, loneliness has crept into her existence. Despite her awkward best efforts, her most likely paramour refuses her as too plain and bossy. Meanwhile, three women from nearby homesteads have had their minds broken by the cruelties of frontier life. It is decided that they should be transported east and remitted to the care of their families. Being single and "a better man" than most of the men in the settlement, Mary Bee volunteers for the duty. Before departing, she rescues a shaggy claim jumper from a vigilante's noose. He may or may not be named George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), and he becomes her reluctant partner in the journey. As they proceed east toward Iowa, the two must contend with the elements, the madness of their charges and the questionable intentions of other people. Ultimately, the central conflict is an internal one, and it remains unclear until the end whether George and Mary Bee can weather it.
Though the sporadic violence, both physical and psychological, may put off some viewers, it serves a story about an unforgiving time and place. Even Briggs' apocalyptic actions toward the end of the movie, while arguably justifiable, play more as retribution than justice; a meeting of cruelty with greater cruelty. And that gets at one of the movie's central themes: In a world comprised of dense layers of injustice and brutality, can anyone find solace or intimacy?
Directed by Jones, The Homesman is a strange, tough, lyrical thing. The striking cinematography evokes the often catastrophic isolation of wide open spaces, underlined by skillful, surprising editing. There is some humor, especially in Jones' portrayal of the cantankerous Briggs, and a pleasantly surprising array of cameos. But overall, the movie is deeply sad — a portrait of a place and time where the end game is survival. R. 122m.
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. 2014 seems like a weird moment for Hollywood to have rediscovered the biblical epic. At least Aronofsky's Noah took the source material and turned it weird. This, directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Alien), is just a tiring, overlong (if handsome) retelling of a story with which very few of us are unfamiliar.
Cousins Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) live more like brothers, fighting side by side in the name of Ramses' father, Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro). Moses can never claim the throne, of course, but everyone is troubled by a prophecy that he may rise as a leader. Then comes the big reveal that he's actually a Hebrew (floated down the Nile as a baby, etc.). Following his father's death, Ramses becomes Pharaoh and orders Moses cast out into the wilderness. Moses wanders the desert, starts a family, is visited by God in the form of small British child, wanders the desert some more. Eventually he unites the Hebrews while Egypt is visited by plagues, and then — spoiler alert — parts the Red Sea and leads his people out of the desert.
Scott is the right sort of director for a movie like this: When the slow parts don't bore, we can admire the vast scope of the thing. But really, it seems like the only reason to make this right now is as an exercise in special effects. Powerful as the lead actors may be, they bring little new insight to the telling of the story, and we could use something — anything, really — about the realities of daily life in ancient Egypt. The effects sequences are spectacular but getting from one to the next is a two-and-a-half-hour slog through too-familiar territory. PG13. 150m.
— John J. Bennett
ANNIE. The musical comedy gets an update with Quvenzhané Wallis as the plucky foster kid and Jamie Foxx as her rich benefactor. PG13. 118m.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES. You've already given nearly 15 hours to Peter Jackson's Tolkien epics — what's another couple of hours for the last ride through Middle Earth? PG13. 144m.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB. Ben Stiller is back on duty as a museum guard with more antiquities, more problems. Try not to tear up when you see Robin Williams. PG. 98m.
WILD. Reese Witherspoon picks up a pack for this adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir about her "a-ha" solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. R. 115m.
BIRDMAN. Excellent weirdness as a former superhero franchise star (ahem, Michael Keaton) grasps at a second act. While his character struggles, Keaton clearly still has his chops. R. 120m.
DUMB AND DUMBER TO. Dumbest. PG13. 109m.
HORRIBLE BOSSES 2. Very funny people saving a less funny script in this kidnapping-and-ransom caper. R. 108m.
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1. Fancy production and action can't salvage the puffed up script and yawning monologues. One more to go. PG13. 116m.
INTERSTELLAR. A beautiful, ambitious movie experience about a pair of astronauts (Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway) searching for habitable planets. Worth the three-hour investment. PG13. 169m.
NIGHTCRAWLER. A taut, well-crafted, character-driven film noir with Jake Gyllenhaal as a shady freelance news photographer. R. 117m.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. This sincere Stephen Hawking biopic/love story centers on the early years and loses momentum in the end. PG13. 123m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this article contained two geographical errors.