Movie Review: The Homesman (2014)- An Uneven yet Devastating Feminist Critique of the Male-Centric Western that Deconstructs the Romanticism of the Genre

hom_article_story_largeThe prospect of the western frontier has always brought with it sweeping hope filled refrains of new beginnings, the freedom of opportunity, and the wonders of success that were explored with optimistic fervor in the classic worlds of John Ford, Raoul Walsh, and Howard Hawkes. However, these borderline naïve depictions of the west as an angelic ever giving terrain failed to account for the realistic complexity that the overarching grand promises of the American frontier were more often than not a deeply tragic lie. This is the centerpiece criticism of Tommy Lee Jones’ sophomore feature The Homesman, which in its essence becomes a sort of proto-feminist critique of the male-centric western genre that has disregarded so many failings relating to the women and children of the savage, hopeless, and unforgiving frontier. Based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout—who also wrote the novels “True Grit” and “The Shootist”—The Homesman follows the subtle revisionist style of Delmer Daves’s 3:10 to Yuma, William A. Wellman’s The Ox-bow Incident, and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven utilizing classic western iconography to undercut the genre’s romanticism. The film as a whole seems purposefully flawed; a sort of poetic unresolved entity wrapped in arcane ideas, vague themes, and subtle characters so as to the show the west as a place of unrewarding hollowness as expansive and empty as the very plains the characters wander. But deconstructing a narrative for artistic sake must remain consistent as not to confuse your intention and unfortunately the imbalance of melancholic mood, black comedic deviations, and abrupt violence interfere with this admirably progressive yet strangely straightforward western. However, The Homesman possesses some intriguing twists on the western’s conventions—both in its odd rhythmic pacing and jolting plot surprises—allowing it to become a modernized piece of folklore that reflects on the corruptible and hopeless civilization that the west ushered in. Jones’ sophomore effort might not have the completely satisfying touch of his first feature The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, but it certainly has some merit in its intention to deconstruct the mythology of the western through subtle acting, gritty realism, and twists on the seemingly old-fashioned western conventions.

Glendon Swarthout’s original 1988 novel “The Homesman” sought to paint a starker reality of the west through a feminine point of view, an aspect that collaborating screenwriters Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, and Wesley A. Oliver captured with bleak authenticity. Set in the desolate Nebraska Territory a little over a decade prior to the Civil War the film follows Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a self-sufficient “uncommonly living” homesteader with two sizable and profitable claims who represents the embodiment of civilization in the west through her hard-work (plowing fields), her moral values (prayer), and her embrace of culture (singing). Despite the admiration of the minister (John Lithgow), the reluctant respect of her neighbors, and the clearly industrious and prosperous way she lives her life, Mary Bee, like all the women of the frontier, is judged through her beauty and meekness as she is described on two separate occasions by two different men declining two different marriage proposals as “plain” and “bossy.” Mary Bee takes up the task untouched by the men of the town to transport three women back to Iowa who have all been driven mad by the hardships, failures, and abuses of the west brought on through dead children, barren land, or rapist husbands. On the opposite character spectrum is George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), an irritable drunken drifter of the plains who is accidentally saved by Mary Bee from a vigilante lynch mob with the agreement that he’ll help in the journey of returning these women back east in exchange for his life, $300 in bank notes, and a jug of whiskey. The film’s script has its fair share of character symbolism (the women are a rebuke of the settlement’s philosophy) and action based allegory (heading east is the trek of failure and frustration), but unfortunately in its poetic attempt to be purposefully bleak the film feels mostly flat and incomplete as the buildup of circumstances feels anticlimactic and the ending feels unresolved. Still, The Homesman embraces these flaws in an unprecedented manner as though they’re part of the film’s tortured melancholic fabric that seeks to show unresolved people in an unresolved world artistically coated in typical western visuals.

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Part of The Homesman’s appeal, and part of its resonating anti-heroic impact, is due to its presentation of the old-fashioned western aesthetic as an underlying tool to uncomfortably use the passionate visuals against our usual expectations of the heroic west. The triumphant plains of John Ford’s Stagecoach and The Searchers has been turned into a cold, desolate wasteland of survivalist hell and failed opportunity while the purposefully underlit interiors invoke the revisionist westerns of Clint Eastwood, such as Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales. It’s a visually thematic use of a forbidding landscape in the same vein as Tommy Lee Jones’ used in his first feature The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, another film about how death, misfortune, and loneliness shifts a characters sense of responsibility.  Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto gives Jones’ western a classic element of comprehensive environmental beauty with the touch of unsettling desolation where the lanscape’s unforgiving reach is expansive applying a similar visual dichotomy that he did with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. But it’s the haunting score from Marco Beltrami that gives this minor-key western its consistently cynical feeling that this journey of failure back to the east is one of sorrowful resignation. These qualities are what might deem The Homesman too bleak an affair to enjoy as a theatrical experience as its resentment towards the male-centric western combined with a drastic shift in protagonists two-thirds of the way through could easily push viewers away from embracing its admirable feminist incentives. Jones’ films feels scattered, positive in some ways—with its blend of ambiguous motifs, black comedic interjections, and a humorously reflective yet unsatisfying ending—but negative in its presentation where it begins to lose narrative focus, especially in its jarring back and forth edits of exposition relating to the women and how they succumbed to their madness. The Homesman is an uneven western, one that is completely underplayed in the dramatic arena and difficult to pinpoint in its thematic influences, but it’s thoroughly thought-provoking, devastatingly critical, and executed with a straight-shooter mentality making it something well worth experiencing.

Underplaying the drama and utilizing subtleties in character is what gives most westerns their strength in accessing a heightened mood to cultivate a resonant emotional atmosphere instead of relying on melodramatic hysterics. This meditative and meticulous dramatic style of filmmaking tends to feel laborious to some but it invites the actors to act minimally in order to expose their full force of emotion, a tactic John Ford adopted issuing the decree to “act with your eyes.” The Homesman is filled with this underplayed style of drama minus the yawping jackassery of Tommy Lee Jones as George Briggs who seems to have blended the drunken antics of Lee Marvin’s Kid Shelleen from Cat Ballou with the Loony Tunes slapstick of Yosemite Sam. Jones’ Briggs is the centerpiece character that lifts the film inevitably through exaggeration into reflective folklore as his frontier selfishness transforms into emotional tenderness that gives The Homesman its tragic end note. What changes Briggs, the embodiment of the frontier’s lack of moral compass, is meeting Mary Bee Cuddy, the embodiment of the morally righteous civilization that has come out west. Hilary Swank as the described as “plain” Mary Bee Cuddy is anything but in her ability to make strong-willed yet vulnerable women seem commonplace, an aspect that’s missing from the cinema as women tend to be written into a familiar corner. She possesses the grace, the demeanor, and the talent to give layers to a character that is complex under the surface as she contains most of the rejection, suffering, and shame into short bursts of believable revelation. Briggs’ patience and her virtue are tested on the journey caring for the talented portrayals of three maddened women: the barren and wound inflicting Norwegian woman Gro Svendsen played in marvelous exaggeration by Sonja Richter, the perpetual mute who mourns the deaths of multiple children Arabella Sours believably portrayed by the young Grace Gummer, and the wide-eyed and disheveled Theoline Belknap who is hauntingly convincing thanks to the talented Miranda Otto. The Homesman has the feeling of widely expansive westerns of the past where numerous characters spill in and out of the frames and require convincing performances to make it flow more naturally and thanks to from the likes of Meryl Streep, James Spader, and Tim Blake Nelson the film flows slightly more naturally than its jarring structure allows.

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Near the end of The Homesman there’s a scene where Briggs, drunk and weathered from his tortured journey back east, gets up on a floating barge to dance a mysterious jig that invokes a blend of feelings from humorous perplexity to hopeless dissatisfaction. It’s a realization moment for his character where civilization has turned him away and the unforgiving desolate frontier has conquered his soul leaving him in a tragic purgatory where nonsensical celebration is the only thing that can distract him from the tragedy that haunts him. This bleak and hollow feeling is the unenjoyable intention behind Tommy Lee Jones’ feature, a film that successfully deconstructs the mythology and romanticism of a genre that more often than not held the optimism of new beginnings and the hope for opportunity at its heart. At times scattered in delivery and ponderous in pacing, Jones’ sophomore feature still maintains a serviceable artistry on the level of his first film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada that seeks to expose the cruelty that settled the west and the civilization that grew on its morally corruptible foundation. The Homesman is at times a devastating feminist critique of the western, a black comedy about the ethical absurdity of the west, and moral parable about the betrayal of goodness in the frontier that doesn’t necessarily have a satisfying ending to any of its disparate features. However, Tommy Lee Jones’ film contains integrity in spirit, personality in delivery, and charm in its performance allowing it to become something to reflect upon if not necessarily something to enjoy.

Grade: B-

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