Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Homesman



Homesman is a stark and unforgiving piece of work, it's a film that proposes that insanity is a likely result of the loneliness and privation of frontier life. In this sense The Homesman almost feels like The Last Western, a film that comes at the end of a century of myth making. It's a work bold in its darkness and in the way it considers what a life in the West can do to those who choose to light out for the territory.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank in a seriously underappreciated performance) is on her own in 1850's Nebraska. Cuddy is financially secure and seems quite capable of managing her property and animals. Then, in an early scene, Cuddy all but begs a neighbor (Evan Jones) to marry her. Her proposal is rejected and we realize the degree to which Cuddy hasn't transcended her surroundings. Indeed, she is barely hanging on. The Homesman (directed and co-written by Tommy Lee Jones from a novel by Glendon Swarthout) isn't interested in mythologizing Cuddy, but rather in dramatizing the mere act of her survival.

 The bulk of The Homesman follows a journey Cuddy makes in order to bring three women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter) from the Plains back to their families in the East. The women have all become mentally ill and their husbands can no longer cope with them. We don't really get to know the women as characters, instead their illnesses are dramatized in a series of short, nightmarish scenes. Cuddy enlists George Briggs (Jones), a man she saves from hanging, as a partner for the journey with the promise of three hundred dollars once the group reaches their destination. Briggs is an intelligent man but a wayward spirit, coping with the frontier by never settling in one place too long.

The real enemy in The Homesman is the country itself. Cuddy and Briggs have brief contact with Indians but meet almost no other people along the way. Jones never lets things get sentimental, and the abrupt cuts that recur throughout (Briggs singing at a campfire into Indians looking down from a rise) are as jarring as the way the open country can change one's fortune.

I don't agree with every choice The Homesman makes. The film shies away from being a genuinely feminist work and indeed the fate of the three women (involving a walk-on by Meryl Streep as a minister's wife) doesn't matter enough. Still the last act follows through on the film's vision, and the last shot suggests that once one has returned from the West the only real choice one has is to go back. The Homesman is an important late Western, and a fine testament to the talents of Jones and Swank. Also with Hailee Steinfeld as a woman who could (sort of) be Cuddy's daughter.

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