(Good friend Rohan Morbey had to go out of his way to catch a theatrical screening of The Homesman, a neo-Western starring Hilary Swank and director Tommy Lee Jones, over in the UK. The movie's getting a wider release in the US, and Rohan's review, which he's generously allowed us to cross-post, strongly indicates it's a must-see. The review appeared in its original form as always over at Rohan's site Closing Credits - do follow him on the Twitters!)
The old adage ‘they don’t make them like they used to’ could be applied to most genres of American cinema in 2014, but none more so than the Western. Westerns, rarely based on established properties, have been pushed away and forgotten in favor of the easy sell and easy buck. Sure, there’s occasionally a True Grit which shows a brief spike in audience attendance but it’s a dying genre. I’m lucky to have six cinemas near my home, plus another three multiplexes if I drive for an hour. Not one of them was showing The Homesman, a film starring three Oscar winners. 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 blockbuster in terms of box office, but one should be able to see this film without having to hunt it down like a precious gem.
Less of my moaning, however, 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 romanticize the times, though the film looks stunning throughout. At the center it has anti-hero 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 duties which, traditionally, would have been carried out by a man. In one scene 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 decide that she should take his place after another is selected.
Jones gives us glimpses into Cuddy's past where she ‘plays’ an imaginary piano, a vestige of a former life 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 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 insensitive, often rough way those affected were treated. The theme of loyalty recurs throughout Westerns and was an essential part of Jones’ superb directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada; 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 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. We’re left to wonder if he’ll make it.
I’ve seen some posters calling The Homesman ‘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, 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, with themes overlooked in favor of ‘universe building’ and 2 minute after-credit ‘stingers’. Tommy Lee Jones has made a film which, to my mind, may only be truly appreciated in the decades to come. If you have the chance, see it now.