0382 | The Homesman

the-homesmanAs with his 2005 neo-western The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, more than half of the running time of Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman is filled with the journey undertaken by its principle characters, played here by the director and Hilary Swank. They’re a mis-matched odd couple, of sorts, and the perilous route they take runs from a tiny Nebraska settlement to a church in neighbouring Iowa. Their job? To transport three local women who have all (rather implausibly, it must be said) become insane within a short period of time; one having lost three children to diphtheria, one having killed her own child and the other having been repeatedly raped by her husband before suffering a breakdown in the wake of her mother’s death. The grim message regarding the hardships faced by women in the 1850s midwest couldn’t be clearer: existing was a struggle, while taking a husband or owning land offered no guarantees and little in the way of extra security.

Despite this, when we first meet Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy, an ex-schoolteacher from New York who has moved west in search of opportunity, she is asking a local man to marry her. He bluntly turns her down, mentioning her plain looks and dumbly mistaking her independent spirit for a ‘bossy nature’. It becomes ever more apparent that most of the male characters in this film have little appreciation for strong-minded, intelligent women, and Cuddy is later rejected in a similar fashion The-Homesman-La-bande-annonce-VOST-du-second-film-de-Tommy-Lee-Jonesby Jones’ grizzled claim jumper Briggs, a man she has previously saved from a lynching; Briggs also comments negatively on Cuddy’s appearance at one point, seemingly oblivious to the state of his own craggy mush, which has more lines on it than Bart Simpson’s blackboard and more whiskers than the cast of Top Cat. Her desire to marry (and perhaps to have children) stands in stark contrast to his indifference, and it’s interesting to note that she doesn’t change her mind despite spending weeks in the company of her travelling companions, all of whom have been abandoned by their husbands. Jones occasionally plays on the absence of union in the film by separating the sexes; his opening credits slowly list the actors’ names in male/female pairs, for example, with women on one side of the screen, men on the other, and a big gap in between.

Cuddy, Briggs and the women they are transporting make for an unusual party, and The Homesman presents itself, initially at least, as an alternative to the male-centric western norm. During their journey the party stands out amid the male-dominated plains and settlements, perhaps seen as an easy target, and they only meet other men along the way, all of whom pose some sort of threat to their safety: a group of Native Americans, homesmana disingenuous hotelier played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson’s thief, and so on. For long periods as they move from one of these encounters to the next it seems as though Swank’s character is the only one with enough mental toughness and wherewithal to make it to Iowa and back unscathed, but we know her persona is partly a necessary exterior bluff, and that she harbours self-doubt while covering up her feeling of loneliness.

We’ve moved on from the days of strong women being ‘tamed’ in westerns, bent over the likes of John Wayne’s knee for a spanking, but even today it’s rare to find a film in this defiantly unfashionable genre that has an out-and-out female lead. As such there’s some truth in Swank’s claim that The Homesman is a feminist film, despite the fact that its women are only seen as being successful if they can do the job of a man (‘You’re as good a man as any man hereabouts’ John Lithgow’s priest tells Mary Bee when she volunteers for the journey), and it’s a shame when the focus jumps unequivocally to Jones’ character, even though presumably the screenwriters were following the story set out in Glendon Swarthout’s original novel. By the end the film carries a rather bleak, depressing message about women in the old west; the final scene encapsulates earlier suggestions that men didn’t give two shits about those who settled the land by their side while also positing, somewhat sadly, that kindness towards the plight of others was not rewarded or respected in any way.

The Homesman is a solidly-crafted western, and its most striking moments tend to involve the three insane patients being transported across the plains: there’s a piercing shriek that Jones refuses to cut away from; a shot of one of the women self-harming in a detatched-but-vaguely-curious way; and a scene in which the same woman, tied up, repeatedly kicks another in the face. It also contains fine cinematography; the ever-excellent Rodrigo Prieto captures some beautiful images of horses and wagons travelling on the horizon, often silhouetted against the sunset, which foreshadow a later scene filled with hellfire and retribution. The Homesman certainly looks good, and it has an impressive cast, but it’s a weird mix of female-centric progression and male-centric traditionalism: for all its focus on an independent, strong female lead character we’re very much back to the status quo by the end credits. Regardless, it’s a weighty and involving piece of filmmaking.

Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones.
Written by: Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley Oliver.
Starring: Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, John Lithgow, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Jesse Plemons, Tim Blake Nelson, Meryl Streep, William Fichtner.
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto.
Editing: Roberto Silvi.
Music: Marco Beltrami.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 122 minutes.
Year: 2014.

Comments 19

    • Stu October 17, 2015

      Yeah, I guess it’s a hard thing to define, really. It obviously passes the Bechdel test, but that’s not exactly the be-all-and-end-all. I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong in a story veering from one sex to another in the narrative, but within the western genre it’s so rare to have a film focusing on a woman it’s a shame that this one can’t sustain it all the way through, though I guess as I said in the review that’s probably as it was in the original novel. Jones was all over the press last year over here saying “don’t call it a feminist film” as it happens…maybe he had a different tune in Australia!

      • Jordan Dodd October 17, 2015

        Oh that is interesting. You are based in the UK right? I coulda sworn I read him say that in a guardian article… maybe I mixed that up.

        Interesting points. Tis a shame that it doesn’t carry that theme through though like you said, its a unique film. But yeah, I’m assuming it was faithful to the novel

  1. Cindy Bruchman October 16, 2015

    Stu, you write such lovely reviews. Really thought-provoking. Your insights about the west and the feminist, albeit, traditional ending was engaging. I have been putting off watching this because it seems dark and depressing, but you have me curious.

    • Stu October 17, 2015

      Thanks very much Cindy, very kind of you! I would recommend this if you’re in the mood but I should add that it is definitely dark and depressing. There’s a sesne that its characters either have mental health problems, die young or live a certain way of life that best allows them to escape either of those fates…I wouldn’t trade my spot in modern day England!!!

  2. Keith October 16, 2015

    I found this to be an intriguing but of filmmaking. I was pretty hooked from start to finish. I quite liked the ending and the somewhat depressing state it leaves things in. I can see it being interpreted in different ways but I liked the darker perspective of things. I didn’t completely buy into everything it was doing, but still it was quite enjoyable.

    • Stu October 17, 2015

      Thanks Keith, very interesting. I was also hooked by this one, and I also liked the ending, despite my frustration at the change of focus. Have you seen The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada? I think that’s the better film of the two, but I liked this and hope Jones makes more.

  3. Mark Walker October 17, 2015

    I was a big fan of The Three Burials and keep meaning to catch up with this, man. I think I’ve been put off with Swank, though. I really don’t rate that actress at all. I don’t know what it is with her. Jones is always reliable, though, so I should get on this.

    • Stu October 17, 2015

      Three Burials is great – it really helped to kick off the renaissance in westerns we’ve had during the past ten years, as well as The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (despite Three Burials being set in the modern day I definitely consider it as a ‘western’). I think you’d get a lot out of this mate, it’s good, although it isn’t quite on a par with the three mentioned above for me.

      I haven’t seen Swank in much to be honest – she was obviously really good in Boy’s Don’t Cry but I hated Million Dollar Baby and can’t remember seeing her in anything else since, at least before this one!

      • Mark Walker October 17, 2015

        Yeah, I’d still class Three Burials as a western too and The Proposition and Jesse James were fantastic. I enjoy a good western and I will check this out.
        Happy to hear you hated Million Dollar Baby. I did too. That film is vastly overrated.

        • Stu October 17, 2015

          Yeah, I have a complete love/hate relationship with Eastwood as a director. Some of his films are brilliant, but there’s a fair few that are as boring as watching three coats of paint dry! A great example being Flags Of Our Fathers (couldn’t stand it) and Letters From Iwo Jima (one of the best war films in recent years). Not that Clint gives a shit!

  4. Tom October 19, 2015

    Great piece. I was waiting to see how you’d address the *cough cough, spoilers here* twist involving the central characters *end spoilers* and I have to say, I failed to acknowledge how much the feminist trend seems to change following that. I don’t think I got into the details too much when I wrote something about it, and for that I feel silly b/c there’s a lot to dissect here. I just enjoyed it for performances and the chance to see a modern western. It is a shame that the genre is, as you say, so unfashionable in this day and age.

    • Stu October 19, 2015

      But that’s fine, though, there are always so many ways you can approach any film and I also enjoyed it for the exact same reasons you did.

      It’s a shame that nobody goes to see westerns on the big screen (in fact I should put my money where my mouth is…I watched Slow West at the cinema but from the past ten years most of my viewing has been at home). Most of the westerns I can think of from the past decade have made very little or didn’t recoup their initial budget. There are a few exceptions, like True Grit, Django Unchained (and I’m sure The Hateful Eight will do well too) and…er…A Million Ways To Die In The West, but mostly they don’t seem to do well. Maybe because the market was so saturated with them 50 or 60 years ago.

  5. Todd Benefiel October 23, 2015

    Neat review, Stu, but good lord, where do you find these films? This is yet another one I’ve read about on your site, but had never heard of. I see it came out in 2014, but I swear I never saw it playing anywhere here in the States! If I had a Blockbuster nearby, I could just go rent it, but those days are long gone, I guess.

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