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The Homesman

Sorry, gentle readers, I know it’s been a while. I was out of town for Thanksgiving, I’ve been hard at work on finals, and I’ve been desperate for Portland cinema to give me something I can work with. Seriously, anything. I don’t care about any of the Madagascar films, I’m already resolved not to see Mockingjay Part 1 until the last film is closer to release, and there isn’t much of anything else right now that I haven’t already covered. I’m glad that some relief is on the horizon this coming weekend, but first let’s talk about The Homesman.

This was apparently a passion project of Tommy Lee Jones, who co-wrote, co-produced, and directed this picture. Luc Besson is also listed among the producers, by way of his EuropaCorp shingle, and that confuses the hell out of me. Even more improbably, the banner of Saban Films proudly flies before the opening credits, which means that this film was brought to us by the same company that birthed the Power Rangers. Take a moment and let that sink in.

Anyway, the film stars Hilary Swank, who’s apparently resumed her mad quest for that third Oscar. She plays Mary Bee Cuddy, who’s introduced as she’s working on her farm in the Nebraska Territory (back when Nebraska was even more of a featureless void than it is now). She then gussies herself up to dine with one of her neighbors (Bob Giffen, played by Evan Jones), and the date turns into a fiasco with the realization that she’s a classy and well-educated woman while he’s an idiotic boor. In any other movie, he would be putting some kind of pressure on her to marry him against her will. But that’s not exactly what happens.

Instead, it seems that Cuddy is so desperate to marry for the sake of her financial prospects that she pressures him to marry her. Yet the guy turns down her proposal because she’s “plain” (read: “I’m a superficial jackass who only cares about a woman’s looks”) and “bossy” (read: “I hate independent women who think for themselves and tell me what to do”). I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, I must compliment the novel spin on a cliched scenario. Also, in such a male-oriented genre as the western, the focus on feminine life in the time period is both welcome and appreciated. On the other hand, Cuddy’s desperation to get married is a recurring point in the story. She’ll beg and plead to marry any man who’s halfway decent, no matter how bad the match clearly is, and she sinks to some humiliating depths toward that end later on. Needless to say, that very severely undercuts the feminist vibe this movie was so clearly going for. It’s hard in this day and age to take a protagonist seriously as a woman who’s just as good as any man when she’s so eager to put herself beneath a man for the sake of marriage. But I’m getting ahead of myself. For right now, take this as a sign of things to come.

Anyway, there are three women in Cuddy’s village who’ve come down with crippling dementia for varying reasons. One of them (Miranda Otto) went mad after blight destroyed her family’s crops, one of them (Sonja Richter) went crazy after her mother died, and another one (Grace Gummer) lost her mind when her kids died of diphtheria. Or maybe she was the one who went insane because her husband is resolved to rape her until she gives birth to a son. Though that could’ve been a fourth woman, it’s so hard to keep track. We’ll get back to that.

The point being that all three women are stuck in the middle of nowhere, unable to get the care they need, married to husbands who range from incompetent to outright evil (one of them is a William Fichtner character, for God’s sake). Which means that someone needs to get these women back to Iowa, the westernmost point of what passed for American civilization back then, so that they can be placed in the care of relatives back east. This means carting three invalid women on a two-month journey through untamed Midwestern fields that are crawling with thieves and savages. Naturally, none of the husbands can make the journey because they have jobs and families to care for. So Cuddy — the rare competent person in this village with no family to hold her down — agrees to get the job done. But of course she needs help.

Enter Tommy Lee Jones, whose character is only known by the name of George Briggs (which is almost certainly an alias). We first meet him when he’s squatting in the house of Bob Giffen (remember him?), who’s gone east on personal business. Some local friends of Giffen decide to take the law into their own hands and hang Briggs for taking possession of another man’s house. I might add that they apprehend Briggs by throwing a goddamn stick of dynamite down the chimney, blowing up the house in question and making George look like he just walked out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Because that makes so much sense.

Anyway, Cuddy is going back home when she finds Briggs with his neck in a noose. She agrees to set him free on the condition that he rides along to provide support and guidance on the trip to Iowa. For added incentive, she throws in a $300 bonus to be collected at the end of the journey. Thus we have our “buddy comedy/road trip” plot, in which the crude, greedy, immoral shitkicker has to learn how to get along with the upstanding, courageous, God-fearing woman who’s half his age.

First of all, what did this movie get right? Well, the casting is very good. In fact, the actors are far better than the movie itself probably deserves. Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones are two great examples: They’re nice to watch, but I could never bring myself to believe that Cuddy and Briggs were actual people rather than performances. It reeks of Oscar-bait, calling for everyone to come and pay attention to these actors as they play deep and moody characters in a heady philosophical period drama. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course, it’s just not all that interesting. Especially when it’s this forced.

(Side note: For those who are interested, keep an eye out for Jones’ daughter, Victoria Jones, who gets a speaking cameo role in the third act while the camera is very tightly zoomed in on her face. Trust me, you’ll know her when you see her. I understand that his son, Austin Leonard Jones, also cameos as a banjo player, but it’s nowhere near as prominent. Make of that what you will.)

As for the supporting cast, the most prominent players are of course Gummer, Otto, and Richter. All three prove themselves to be immensely talented at playing three catatonic women who barely talk and could turn violent at any moment. We also have John Lithgow, who’s probably the MVP of the supporting cast. Lithgow does a sterling job of using what little he has to elevate the entire movie, even though he pretty much disappears from the movie after the first act. I mean, I get that this is a road movie, so characters are naturally going to come and go as the narrative continues, but the point stands that the supporting cast is loaded with wasted talent.

Other examples include Meryl Streep, who puts in a one-scene appearance just so the movie can claim her presence and get awards voters excited. Hailee Steinfeld puts in an even briefer appearance, getting maybe two minutes of screen time at the very end of the movie just in time to do fuck-all. William Fichtner gets a couple minutes in during the first act, just long enough to sleepwalk his way to a paycheck. Tim Blake Nelson also gets a scene to chew scenery and beat the crap out of Jones, and he does a pretty good job with what he’s given. Last but not least is James Spader, who gets one scene as a pompous two-dimensional twat who turns away poor customers in favor of the wealthy.

Yes, the movie goes there. The movie talks about income inequality while issues of religion, feminism, and mental illness are all still on the table. Worst of all, the connection between them is made thin to non-existent, which means that none of these themes congeal into anything that’s interesting, creative, or thought-provoking. This especially sucks because any one or two of the above themes could potentially have been made into something brilliant, given this premise and setting. But by favoring an approach of quantity above quality, it all amounts to a thin, watered-down, sometimes self-contradictory mess.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the editing. There are so many times — particularly early on — when we’re beset with random cutaways pertaining to the women being transported. It’s implied that we’re getting glimpses into their minds, seeing the traumatic memories and the diseased hallucinations that led to their mania. I could admire that approach if they weren’t used in such a slipshod manner.

You see, flashbacks (good flashbacks, anyway) comment on the story in progress because they let us see what a character is thinking at a particular point in time. Something happens that conjures a character’s thought or memory, we see the thought or memory play out on the screen, and everything we see afterwards has that added bit of context. By comparison, the flashbacks in this movie concern events that have absolutely no relevance to anything that happens presently or later on, and they’re spliced into the movie in such a random way that it’s often hard to tell precisely who’s having the flashback and why. As a result, the flashbacks are hopelessly confusing, disjointed, and they give the impression that they were only included to pad out the running time.

Which brings me to the third act.

See, through most of the running time, I was seriously dreading this review. Because from the first act through the second, this movie was mostly just okay. Not good, not bad, not stupid, not smart, not funny, not tragic, just split right down the middle. I had no idea what to say about a movie that isn’t bad enough to hate but isn’t good enough to recommend.

Then the movie jumped the shark. It jumped the shark into low orbit, gentle reader.

It happened at the 80-minute mark, when this movie presented the dumbest, most awkward, most wretchedly painful sex scene I’ve ever endured. This movie had already shown a man raping his mentally defective wife — TWICE! — and I would still rather sit through either of those scenes than the one that happened eighty minutes in. And then the sex scene ends with a suicide. No reason, just because. Character dead by suicide. Boom, done.

Let’s set aside the fact that neither the sex scene nor the suicide make even the slightest bit of sense from a narrative or character standpoint. There was absolutely no reason for either of them to happen, and that would be bad enough. But what really makes this a shark-jumping turn of events is in how the film visibly deflates through the remainder of its runtime. The payoff is weak and the climax barely deserves to be called as such, so the movie just twiddles its thumbs for a half-hour, navel-gazing until the two-hour screen time finally wears down.

I’d say that The Homesman shot itself in the foot with that turning point into the third act. Truthfully, however, this movie shot itself in the foot when the protagonist was made into a strong proto-feminist who was willing to debase herself in finding a serviceable husband. Everything else about this movie looks and feels self-indulgent, like it was made more to boost the egos and awards cred of the filmmakers than to give the moviegoing public a thought-provoking story.

Does that necessarily make it a bad movie? No, of course not. A movie isn’t automatically bad just because someone involved wants some Oscars or some box office money. Still, I have a very hard time recommending this film when so many better movies are out right now and there are so many other awards-season movies coming out in the next few weeks (ie: BirdmanInterstellarNightcrawlerWild, The Imitation Game, etc.). This might be worth a watch or a rental in the improbable event that the Academy takes the bait. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.

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