Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review: The Homesman

by Patrick Bromley
Forget acting. Tommy Lee Jones should just direct westerns from now on.

I still haven't seen 2005's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the big-screen directorial debut of Tommy Lee Jones (he had directed one HBO movie before that and has directed one since). I meant to at the time of its release, as it was regularly compared to Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a great fucking movie with a great fucking Warren Oates performance. I always meant to. It just never happened.

On the strength of his latest directorial effort The Homesman, I plan to rectify that immediately. It is a great western that might just be a brilliant western, deserving of mention in the same sentence as revisionist westerns like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Proposition. It's the kind of movie we all hoped Clint Eastwood would be making in the wake of Unforgiven. Instead he's making Hereafter and Jersey Boys. Let's be thankful for that old grouch Tommy Lee Jones.
Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a single schoolteacher who moved west to Nebraska in pursuit of the American dream. She owns a good deal of land and has considerable wealth but is desperately lonely, dreaming of a family but unable to find a husband (she's too bossy, men tell her, and too plain). When none of the men in town are brave enough to volunteer, Cuddy offers to escort three women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer and Sonja Richter) who have gone crazy after suffering terrible losses back to a church in Iowa where they can be looked after. She enlists kooky old George Briggs (Jones) after rescuing him from being hung for claim jumping, and though he insists he is free to leave at any time he gives his word that he will, at the very least, ride out with the women. The rest of the film depicts Cuddy and Briggs' hardships as they transport three catatonic women across the unforgiving American frontier. But, of course, there's more to it than that.

The Western has always been a male-dominated genre: directed by male filmmakers, starring male actors and telling stories about male characters with male concerns. Yes, there's the occasional Meek's Cutoff, but balancing that out is garbage like Bad Girls, which is just a shitty male western that swaps in prostitutes and vaginas. The Homesman is still a "masculine" movie, for lack of a better word -- spare and macho and craggy (an extension of its director) -- but one which concerns itself a great deal with the treatment of women during the period. It does not have nice things to say. In fact, it has only terrible things to say but never becomes preachy. Jones' direction and the script (by Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver and Jones) present everything in a matter-of-fact way -- so matter-of-fact, actually, that some of the biggest turns in the movie are presented no differently from that which is mundane. They actually gain power in that way; without the swelling score and stylistic flourishes and the huge emotional reactions, the moments remain brutal and haunting. This movie punched me in the stomach more than once.
Jones has assembled a murderers' row of talent for the film, most of whom only show up for a single-scene cameo. Besides himself and Swank, there's John Lithgow, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Corbin, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, Hailee Steinfeld and Meryl Goddamn Streep. Everyone is good in their roles, though I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little distracting and turns the movie into a game of "which famous guest star is going to show up next?" It's a problem encountered by several recent cross-country films, be it Into the Wild or Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. The movie's visibility is boosted by an A-list cast and it's appealing to actors because they can knock their performances out in the span of a day.

It's mostly the Jones and Swank show, though, which I would have told you I was uninterested in just two hours before seeing The Homesman. They prove me wrong. Jones barely needs to act in a movie like this; he can just show up and let his weathered face, grumpy demeanor and sad eyes do all the work for him. His work in this movie is more than that, though, and he gives George Briggs more dimension than this character would get in almost any other movie (even if he was still played by Tommy Lee Jones), especially in the film's final third. It's Swank who really resonates, though, infusing Mary Cuddy with strength and tremendous dignity but also unbearable loneliness and pain. From her first scene to her last, she breaks your heart. Despite being a two-time Oscar winner, Swank has struggled to find her place in Hollywood during the 2000s; she's usually either miscast in big studio projects (P.S. I Love You, The Reaping, The Black Dahlia) or doing misbegotten "prestige" projects like Amelia. Her work in The Homesman is a reminder of why she won those two Oscars in the first place. She's so great.
It's also an achingly gorgeous movie, with Marco Beltrami contributing a lovely score and Rodrigo Prieto's photography finding the beauty as well as the harshness in the landscape. The frontier is cruel and violent, but again shot without judgment -- it's never the fucking villain of the movie. There is a kind of tendency in most contemporary westerns to construct them in air quotes: big melodies and expansive vistas there to remind you not just that you're watching a western, but to remind you of every other western you've ever watched (this is something Seth McFarlane was actually on to with this summer's A Million Ways to Die in the West but never managed to really explore). There's very little of that in The Homesman, which carries the genre in its marrow but is also willing to reflect on it in ways that are far less than reverential.

I loved The Homesman. It is a sad movie and a bleak one, but such is the story of America it has chosen to tell. It's a flawed movie, but the best kind of flawed movie -- one that overreaches and which cares about a group of people that are underrepresented and whose terrible treatment has been ignored by our American myths. It's an interesting thing: there are so few Westerns made these days that when one finally does come along, it's usually from a filmmaker who cares a great deal about the genre or who has a very specific story that can only be told in this framework. Both can be said of The Homesman. It's a movie that's getting ignored during this end-of-year awards rush, and that's a shame. It's a special film, and a beautiful one.


  1. WOW. I can't wait to see this; my interest is seriously piqued. I really love Tommy Lee Jones, and I find that he has gotten better with age.

    Patrick, have you ever seen (or read) Lonesome Dove? The TV mini-series hasn't necessarily aged well, but it had a great cast and was full of real consequences for the characters. It's always been a standard of what the Western genre could be. Robert Duvall got a lot of attention for his performance, but Tommy Lee Jones was pretty subdued in a role that I've come to appreciate more over the years. This makes me want to watch ALL of the Tommy Lee Jones movies. Except maybe Batman and Robin.

  2. I really love westerns, and a really good one hasn't come out in years (not in my estimation anyway). It's really exciting to hear about one that you rate so highly. I will absolutely be giving this movie a watch.

    1. 2010 True Grit. I guess that was 'years' ago, but not so far back

    2. Leaving out Lone Ranger, what about Django Unchained, guys? Or is that too stylistically different from traditional westerns?

    3. First off, I come back having seen The Homesman just a few hours ago and it is fantastic. If you can go see it in a theater (I found the only theater showing it in the entirety of the Silicon Valley) then go do it. But True Grit was the movie I had in mind when saying that, but I don't think you are wrong Heath. I realized that I categorize Django, fairly or not, as simply a Tarantino movie in my head, but that is a great movie and I think I unjustly removed it from the category of Westerns.

  3. Damn. I hadn't really thought about this movie much until 1. I saw the trailer for it before Whiplash and 2. This review. Now it's on the must see list.

    1. It's really good. Hope you're able to see it!

  4. Leaving "Django unchained" aside, because Tarantino is a different kind of thing, "The homesman" is the best western I´ve seen since Costner´s "Open Range".
    The loneliness of Swank´s character made me cry when she slipped under the blanket with Jones more than what happens next. What a ballsy left turn and at the same time totally comprehensible.
    Great acting all around, reminding me how good Hilary Swank can be in the right role. Also further proof after "Three burials", what a good director Jones is.