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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: The Homesman (2014)

* * 1/2

Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Starring: Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones

I can't recall the last movie I saw which left me with as many mixed feelings as Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman. The film is beautiful to look at but emotionally inert. Well-acted but anchored by characters who never really feel consistent. It seems to want to stand as a statement about the emotional and psychological hardships faced by women in the most masculine of settings - the frontier - but tries to accomplish this through female characters marginalized by society and, ultimately, by a story which leaves the final word and the last act to its central male character, who makes a sudden turn to become an avenging angel of feminine honor. I've sat with this film now for three days and I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about it and its bizarre point-of-view.

The Homesman begins with Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a hardworking woman living all alone on her claim in the Nebraska Territory, trying to make the most out of it and hoping to make a marriage which will allow her to join her considerable claim with that of another, and alleviate the aching loneliness she feels on her large and isolated property. Her overture to a neighbor - presented to him as a sensible business transaction, though her desire for something deeper is apparent - is immediately rejected, with him stating that she's too bossy to make it worth it to him to combine his claim with hers, and that she's too plain besides. He would rather go back East to find a wife to his "liking," even if she can offer less materially than Mary can. Having passed 30, Mary is now looking at a future of spinsterhood, of continuing to work her claim on her own and having no one to pass it on to even if she does manage to make something out of it. She wants to create a legacy but, more than that, she wants to feel some real connection to someone, to have someone who makes it all worthwhile simply by sharing it with her.

Elsewhere in the fledgling outpost she calls home, three women have lost their minds: Theoline Belknapp (Miranda Otto) has murdered her baby, Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) has lost all her children to diphtheria and now clutches a doll day and night, and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) has broken down as a result of her mother's death and the cruel and violent treatment by her husband. It is decided that all three will be taken to Iowa where there is a church that cares for the mentally ill, but no man is willing to undertake the arduous task of transporting the women across the difficult and dangerous terrain. Knowing that the job needs to be done, Mary volunteers to do it herself and begins making her preparations even as she begins to question her ability to actually accomplish the task. Her worries are only somewhat relieved when she meets Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a man who has been left to hang for claim jumping and who agrees to accompany and help her on the way to Iowa in exchange for her cutting him down and the further promise of $300 that will be paid to him when they arrive at their destination. So off they set, Mary, Briggs, and three women tied down and locked up in a wagon, on a journey that seems destined to fail.

Visually, The Homesman is striking for the way that it gives the frontier an appearance which makes it seem almost ocean-like in its vastness. Characters look out at the land and it seems endless, an unpopulated, untamed expanse stretching on forever that makes the houses and start up towns on the land feel all the more isolated and look dwarfed to the point of seeming impossible. From a distance they look like doll houses and doll towns in the middle of nothing. This is a hard land, a land that grinds up everyone not made of steel, everyone with an ounce of sensitivity; no wonder people are going crazy. That hardness of the setting comes across in every frame of the film, which makes the plight of the three mentally unmoored women all the more heartrending. What they need is some relief from the inconceivable burden that they face as caregivers in a place where nothing is easy, and some kindness (Arabella is an exception, but both Theoline and Gro are treated like brood mares crossed with servants by their husbands); to be treated with value and as human beings, essentially. Instead they are used and abused, physically restrained and then carted away. Yet their position is not unique and, though she has not lost her mind, Mary can relate to these women as she herself, though she has the financial means to live on her own, is as marginalized, voiceless, and devalued by the society as they are.

Adapted by Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, and Wesley Oliver from the novel by Glendon Swarthout, The Homesman has a thing or two to say about the plight of women in a setting where brute strength is a necessity merely for survival, though I would ultimately decline to call it feminist. As it enters into its final act, The Homesman takes a sudden turn which comes seemingly from nowhere and which results not only in Briggs' character development being fed by Mary's humiliation and desperation, but in Briggs taking over from Mary as the center of the story. Much of the film plays out as a different take on the standard Western, one which aims to be told from a perspective not often seen in the genre, but then the twist comes, Mary is left behind by the story, and Briggs becomes the savior of the women, and it becomes clear that this is really just the same old story after all. It isn't that stories about women aren't worth telling if the women in question aren't "strong" - weakness can be compelling, too, in the right story - but it's difficult to endorse a film which presents itself as being a story about women and then turns out to be a story about how a man discovers his humanity through the pain and suffering of women, which is unfortunately what The Homesman ends up being.

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