The Homesman, 2014.
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones.
Starring Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, Jesse Plemons and William Fichtner.
Three women who have been driven mad by pioneer life are to be transported across the country by covered wagon by the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who in turn employs low-life drifter George Briggs to assist her.
The old adage ‘they don’t make them like they used to’ could be applied to pretty much most genre film making depending on your outlook of American cinema in 2014, but never more so could that be said of a genre than the Western. Westerns, like too many films not based on established properties, have been pushed away and forgotten in favour of the easy sell and easy buck. Sure, there’s always a True Grit which shows a brief spike in audience attendance but it’s a dying genre.
I’m lucky to have six cinemas within walking or short driving distance from my home, plus another three multiplexes if I extend that drive to an hour. Not one of them was showing The Homesman, this film starring three Oscar winners and something which could offer audiences a different experience than 99% of all other films releases this year. The film has taken $45,000 in the US or about the same amount a comic book film takes in one screening. I’m not saying The Homesman should rival a box office juggernaut in terms of takings, but one should be able to see this film without hunting it down like a precious gem.
Less of my moaning, however, and on to the film, because The Homesman is a gem worth hunting down. On one side Tommy Lee Jones’ second directorial effort is every bit the revisionist Western we have come to expect in the last 40 years; this isn’t a tale of square-jawed good guys versus those evil Indians nor does it attempt to romanticise the times despite the film looking stunning throughout. At the centre it has an anti-hero in the way of George Briggs (Jones), an army deserter who is left for dead after owing money, only to be rescued by a strong female character in the shape of Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). Briggs promises to repay Cuddy by helping her on her five week journey from Nebraska to Iowa.
It is the purpose of this journey which makes The Homesman stand apart from other Westerns I’ve seen; Cuddy has taken responsibility for three women who have developed mental illness and can no longer be cared for by their husbands. Jones’ film, similar to Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 Meek’s Cutoff, questions the traditional roles of men and women in the West and is a film as much about feminism as it is the more usually observed themes of masculinity. Cuddy is single, unlike every other woman in the film and just wants a husband, children, and a traditional life; yet in the film she takes on the role which, traditionally, would have been carried out by a man. In one scene where the decision of which husband should take the women to Iowa is done by drawing from a hat, Cuddy fills in for one of the absent men only to make the decision she should take his place once the draw has been made.
I especially liked the glimpses into her past Jones gives us where she ‘plays’ an imaginary piano as she was used to in her former life in New York which was given up to find more opportunity out west. This also hints at a growing depression and desperation within Cuddy which is later brought to the fore in one of the film’s most emotionally impactful scenes. Hilary Swank shows here the kind of acting form which won her those two Oscars and reminds us of her talents which have been underused for the best part of a decade.
The film also looks at mental illness at the time and the way those affected were treated and the moving towards new ways to help them, even if they are still tied with ropes and transported in a wagon designed for prisoners. In Westerns the theme of loyalty is reoccurring and was an essential part of Jones’ superb directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and in The Homesman loyalty to the wellbeing of the three women is equally essential in how it is betrayed and gained. The theme of older men entering the new way of the West, key to Sam Peckinpah classics like The Wild Bunch and The Ballad of Cable Houge also envelops the film; when we first meet Briggs he is unceremoniously left to die in his underwear, begging for help and saved by a woman on more than one occasion. As the Briggs and Cuddy make their journey, the film throws a variety obstacles in their way, some of which can be dealt with the old fashioned way, and some which cannot. A brief role for James Spader is pivotal to this theme where a hotel owner will not help Briggs because he must put prospective clients first, a matter Briggs cannot solve with a gun but one which he cannot let go of either in perhaps his last chance to impose his masculinity of the old way. Later we see Briggs spending all his money on a suit but is rejected from a seat at a poker table because the bills he has from his home town are worthless. There is nothing he can do but leave and go back to the land he knows, not before drunkenly firing off rounds at the town which has rejected him. We’re left to wonder if he’ll make it.
I’ve seen some posters will saying ‘the best western since Unforgiven’ which is both an exceptionally high bar and also unfairly overlooking some great films in the past 22 years, but The Homesman is certainly in the same company as Open Range, 3:10 to Yuma, Meek’s Cutoff, and John Hillcoat’s Australian western The Proposition. It’s a reminder of a way of film making we don’t get to see too often, and themes overlooked in favour of ‘universe building’ and 2 minute after-credit ‘stingers’. Tommy Lee Jones has made a film which, to my mind, will only be truly appreciated in the decades to come. If you have the chance to see it now, you can say ‘I told you so’ to those who missed out.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter.