Friday, October 31, 2014

The Homesman 2014 Film

What more is there for Tommy Lee Jones to do with a Western? We have seen him in a cowboy hat on screen so much it is almost part of his head. To my surprise, Jones has not made a film as a director set in the Old West since the 1995 TV movie The Good Old Boys, which I have not seen. I have seen his last two films, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and HBO's The Sunset Limited, and I have come to the conclusion Jones is a very underrated director. He knows how to expertly pace a scene to bring about the maximum amount of tension. This is particularly evident in The Sunset Limited, where he and Samuel L. Jackson talk for ninety minutes, and every second of it is riveting. For his latest film, The Homesman, Jones tries to make a traditional, epic Western centered on a strong woman. However, its gender politics become increasingly confused the further along the film goes and really hinder something that could have been great.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is thirty-one years old and unmarried, living alone on a farm in Nebraska. She can ride a horse, shoot a gun, cook a pie, plow a field, and just about anything else you can do on a farm. The reason for her being single is she is "too bossy", which we hear from a man she asks to marry. During a church meeting led by the town reverend (John Lithgow), we learn three wives of the locals have gone "a little funny in the head", as President Muffley would say, due to the hostile conditions of the West and a surprising amount of dead babies. Mary volunteers to take these women up to Iowa, so they can be better taken care of, now that their husbands have given up on them. On her way out, she comes across a drifter, wearing only his undergarments, sitting atop a horse with a noose around his neck (Tommy Lee Jones). In exchange for his life (and some money), she employs him to help with her journey.

The film then becomes a whole mish-mash of different genres. It is sometimes a thriller about the dangers of the Old West. It is sometimes a drama about examining Mary's psychology. It is even sometimes a buddy, road trip comedy. Jones clearly wants this film to be a big epic, covering large swaths of material and various tones, but he never can nail down one to grab hold of. Each one is executed fairly well on their own, but they never find a good flow from one to the other. We will occasionally cut to flashbacks of the three women on their roads to madness, and the jarring tonal shift to something horrific always feels off, especially if the previous scene is Jones doing something wacky. And he has his fair share of wacky scenes. I mean, there are two separate scenes where he drunkenly sings and dances like a fool.

What really hurts The Homesman is its supposed feminist angle, and the large departure the film takes away from that. Everything we have been told about Mary allows us to think she will figure out a way to maneuver her way through this long and difficult journey. However, about half-way to two-thirds of the way through the movie, the film is no longer about a strong woman. It is about a woman who redeems a man. A major thing happens at the end of the second act which is totally unbelievable for Mary to do given everything that has proceeded it and completely took me out of the rest of the movie. For an hour and half, we have been told the movie is about this one thing, and in one decision, it becomes all about a man fulfilling his duty. It is a massive issue the film, which had been very solid up until that point, can never fully come back from.

Director of photography Rodrigo Prieto captures the West and all of its dangers beautifully. When these characters are traversing through the snow, you can feel how cold and desolate the space is. Westerns often just want to go with the majestic shots (and this film certainly has those), but it also has its moments of stark, harsh reality. Also, a shot of a building on fire at night with someone silhouetted in the flame will always be beautiful.

Tommy Lee Jones did not make a bad film here. On a technical level, it is quite impressive. He was just confused about the story he wanted to tell. He tries to cover so many things, and only some reach their full potential. Then, the gender politics of everything is rather troubling, though I do not think Jones did that with bad intentions. I think it was just the way he knew how, and unfortunately, it is pretty troublesome. I had the intention of giving this film a C+ coming out of the theater, but then I remembered James Spader shows up for a scene as a snobby hotel manager with an Irish brogue. A film containing that automatically gets a bump in its grade. You know you all agree with me.

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