MOVIE REVIEW: The Homesman




Let’s be honest.  If we wanted to talk about stereotypes among movie genres, gender labels would be very easy to assign.  When someone says “chick flick,” our minds likely go straight to romantic comedies, Nicholas Sparks adaptations, and Lifetime TV movies.  Ask for a “teen film,” and someone’s going to point you to a range of things between “The Breakfast Club” and “Twilight.”  Geeks lay claim to quirky comedies and science fiction.  Last but not least, you have the wide realm of “guy movies.”  We men are cavemen and we’re easy to please.  I’ve sarcastically covered this topic in the past with humorous editorial entitled “The Required Movies on a Man’s Pinterest Page.”

As you can see from that editorial, the entire genre of westerns is #3 that last.  We men can’t say no.  We can’t resist a good western.  On paper, the new film opening in Chicago and on Video On Demand this week, “The Homesman,” starring and directed by Tommy Lee Jones could sell tickets to us men just by his presence alone.  His gruff persona is perfect for the genre in every way.  The “guy film” potential and exterior stops there at Tommy Lee Jones.  “The Homesman,” adapted from the novel of the same name from notable western writer Glendon Swarthout dives deeper, darker, and fervently towards a different perspective.

This film’s narrative and purpose soundly favors the female perspective within the western genre and Jones is merely the guide.  Other critics and opinions are calling “The Homesman” a “feminist western.”  Those are two words you likely haven’t ever heard or expected to hear together.  Chances are, there are women that will hate that label for being a label and men who will hate it because it sours their “guy film” genre.  That’s too bad, because Tommy Lee Jones has given forth a uniquely solid effort here to do something different and something both genders can tip their hat towards.

Two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank stars as Mary Bee Cuddy.  She is an unmarried and independent woman in 1850’s Nebraska.  Mary owns and tends to her own land, claims, and property.  She’s a God-fearing, educated, and cultured woman who constantly earns the respect of leader Reverend Dowd (John Lithgow) while being ostracized by her fellow ladies.  She’s a leader and an example that doesn’t get the full credit she deserves because she’s a woman. 

After a particularly awful winter in their small rural community, three local married women have gone crazy, insane, and virtually mute from troubling personal hardships.  The immigrant Gro (Danish actress Sonja Richter) has been repeatedly raped and loses her mother.  Theoline (Mirando Otto of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) killed her own infant baby.  The youngest, Arabella (Grace Gummer, daughter of Meryl Streep), lost her three children to diphtheria over the course of three days.  None of their husbands (Jessi Plemons, William Fichtner, and David Dencik) can handle them anymore and all refuse the long journey to take them to another church in Iowa where they can be cared for.

Mary’s sense of right readily volunteers to complete this trip.  She starts out alone with the three women locked in a wagon.  Early in their journey, Mary comes upon the rough and surly George Briggs (Jones himself) tied up on horseback with a noose around his neck secured to a tree.  Mary agrees to cut him down and save his life if he agrees to escort her and the women on their long road to Iowa.  The complaining lout soon becomes their dedicated protector and leader from the dangers that await them across the vast grasslands.

“The Homesman” is Tommy Lee Jones’s third film as a director and his largest effort yet.  In all three of his films, Tommy has called his own number to star, including 2005’s true crime and William Faulkner merger, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” that earned him the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival.  He followed that up with the two-man Cormac McCarthy play adaptation “The Sunset Limited” in 2011 where he re-teamed with his fellow “Rules of Engagement” powerhouse Samuel L. Jackson.  Here in “The Homesman,” Jones is the consummate actor we always count on him to be.

Without becoming a version of John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn from “Rooster Cogburn” as a blustering and bickering mismatched pair, both Jones and Swank stay true to the hardscrabble roots needed for this story.  Both play appropriate tonal opposites without farce.  George’s toughness is on the outside where Mary’s is on the inside.  The same flip can be said for their heart and decency showing for one and being internalized for the other.  Both Jones and Swank have the talent to command their presence.

When actors take on the role to direct a film, they get to call in some buddies for favors.  In doing so, Jones has surrounded himself with some familiar collaborators and impressive talent in front of and behind the camera.  Most prominently, his “Hope Springs” co-star Meryl Streep plays a key extended cameo role, and joins the likes of James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Tim Blake Nelson, Evan Jones, and Barry Corbin (one of Jones’s old “Lonesome Dove” cast mates), in the deep ensemble roster.  Mexican cinematographer and Academy Award nominee Rodrigo Prieto (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Argo,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”) brings a level of quality to “The Homesman” that elevates this dingy small story and gives its beautiful landscape the proper epic scale and look.  The costumes, makeup, and production design are quite good for the period.  Two-time Oscar nominee and veteran film composer Marco Beltrami (“3:10 to Yuma,” “The Hurt Locker”) paints a nice musical background. 

Tommy Lee Jones was right to be proud of this film.  He submitted “The Homesman” into the main competition for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.  It is not an earth-shattering film that is trying to thrill or shock anyone, but it has its firm message to send and knows its limitations.  The film isn't going to win any epic awards for epic movie-making on the level with “Unforgiven” or “Dances with Wolves” within the western genre, but it holds its own to be a respectable film.  Its feminist stance, if that’s what you want to call it, was a successful torch to bear.

LESSON #1: THE DIFFICULTY OF LONG JOURNEYS OVER UNTAMED AND DANGEROUS COUNTRY—Traversing the pre-colonized, unsettled, and lawless American wilderness of the Plains and West is tremendously difficult under any circumstances, even fully equipped with ample resources.  Any child of the 1970’s and 80’s who played “Oregon Trail” on old computers knows that.  In “The Homesman,” you have a woman trying to do it alone with an aged hired hand and three volatile women in a distance from Nebraska to Iowa that we could accomplish by car in a matter of hours today instead of weeks then.  Add in thieving travelers and dangerous Indians to the unpredictable elements and you’ll redefine difficult when talking about a road trip.

LESSON #2: AN ABLE WOMAN IS JUST AS SKILLED, BRAVE, TOUGH, AND HONORABLE AS ANY MAN—Mary Bee Cuddy would be called a spinster in her time period.  She defies the preferred norms for women to prove that she can be successful, capable, and able as a farmer and landowner.  Mary is still a proud Christian with a genuine soul.  This journey and task adds honor, toughness, and bravery to her character and drives away her internal feelings of depression and isolation.  She’s a rare powerful figure and a strong female example in a western genre film. 

LESSON #3: THE HARSH LIFESTYLES OF WOMEN ON THE AMERICAN FRONTIER—Mary’s pillar traits are mirrored by the tragedies and mental distress suffered by the three women in her care.  Each represent a different personal challenge.  This is a side of the American West that carries little history or documentation.  Feelings of trapped isolation, both within geography and within marriage, were common, but unspoken, afflictions rooted in misunderstood, but very real, depression.  Women were overburdened for service and compliance with uneven personal gain.  Family and domestic struggles never got helpful attention and issues were dusted under the rug.  “The Homesman” puts those unspoken issues front and center.  To say life was hard for them is another understatement.