REVIEW: The Homesman

29 11 2014

The HomesmanHistorically speaking, the Western has not been the most hospitable type of movie to the female gender. This philosophical statement from the genre’s patron saint, John Wayne, pretty much says it all: “I stick to simple themes. Love. Hate. No nuances. I stay away from psychoanalyst’s couch scenes. Couches are good for one thing.”

Writer/director Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” provides an interesting rejoinder to that legacy of rugged masculinity through its protagonist, Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy.  She is a gritty, hard-working single farmer in the Nebraska Territory who still maintains a sense of empathy and caring.  So, in other words, she balances traits that are socially gendered for both sexes.

She also initiates her own destiny rather than waiting around for someone else to save her, boldly proposing marriage to other landowners in order to consolidate property.  Unsurprisingly, in the 19th century just as today, men greet such a woman with suspicion.  And their favorite word to describe Cuddy?  Bossy, the very word for girls that outspoken feminist Sheryl Sandberg wants to ban.

Cuddy’s resolve certainly stands out not only for the film’s phylum but also within the movie itself, as women are otherwise made victims of rape or cruelly objectified by men.  This message is undeniably worthwhile, yet little else about “The Homesman” is.   The film is a meandering mess that no amount of advocacy can fully redeem.

Hilary Swank The Homesman

The plot follows Cuddy as she embarks on a mission to rescue three insane women and escort them to a safe haven.  To be fair, she only undertakes this task because the man in her community assigned to complete is too cowardly to fulfill his obligations.  Though this journey gives a structure to the film, no conflict or driving emotional force accompanies it.  Cuddy occasionally spars with her traveling companion, common criminal George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), and that is about the extent of the tension on screen.

“The Homesman” remains passably watchable thanks to some solid below-the-line efforts – namely, Rodrigo Prieto’s gorgeous bucolic landscapes and Marco Beltrami’s buzzing score.  Jones’ work behind the camera, on the other hand, is a distinct disappointment following the tautly directed “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.”  That film showed Jones is definitely capable of orchestrating a top-notch alternative take on the Western, but “The Homesman” misses its narrative mark by a wide margin.

On a less sophisticated level, the film fascinates with its spinning carousel of star cameos that could rival “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”  Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Hailee Steinfeld, Jesse Plemons, William Fitchner, and even James Spader each mosey into the frame for a brief spell, usually for no good reason.  Each must have owed Tommy Lee Jones a favor or been desperately trying to plug a free day in their shooting schedules.

One role that Jones did not manage to fill with a marquee name was the first man courted by Cuddy.  Before calling her bossy, this gentleman suitor falls asleep while Cuddy sings and begins to snore.  My, what foresight that guy possessed as to how things would unfold.  C2stars

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