The Homesman (2014)

H_20130419_8652.tifIn Nebraska, some time in the 1850s, New Yorker Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers to transport a trio of troubled women across country to Iowa. Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknapp (Miranda Otto) and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) are taken from their families, loaded into a horse-drawn wagon and lead out of town on a perilous journey through the American Midwest — where they face myriad dangers including but not limited to bandits and natives. Mary Bee is understandably reluctant to undertake the venture alone, and when she spies a con-man trussed up to a tree she negotiates guidance in exchange for mercy. Together with George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), she sets off into the wilderness.

It’s easy to see why The Homesman is being identified as a Western, albeit one with feminist and/or other subversive qualities; the film is about ten percent dirt, thirty percent sky and sixty percent misery. It’s bleak and hard and unforgiving, and you’d likely have an easier time mining for water than entertainment value. This is another story featuring a mysterious wanderer (there is a twinkle in Jones’ eye that suggests he is not giving his real name), at first in it for the money, who ultimately discovers that there may be more to life than opportunistic crime and senseless violence — that there might in fact be good people out there; people worth helping, if not necessarily saving.

Where The Homesman differs to most, however, is in its focus. Tommy Lee Jones may write, direct and indeed star, but he is not the protagonist of his own story. That would be Hilary Swank, making her long-overdue return to the big screen following a three-year hiatus that left something of an awkward silence after Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve. She gives an outstanding performance as Mary Bee Cuddy — her best in ages — and though haggard and harrowing there is an honesty to it that hooks you and won’t let go. She’s lonely, homesick and desperate to be close to someone — even if only contractually. She mundanely propositions men with marriage, treating the act more as a business transaction than an emotional union, then wonders why they label her plain and bossy.

This depth of character is only possible due to the thematic complexity which similarly sets it apart from others entries in the Western genre. The Homesman is a treatise on mental illness, and uses its female protagonist as a prism through which to explore a subject that is rarely considered the domain of the period drama. Mary Bee is struggling herself, and though far from catatonic it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to diagnose some sort of mood disorder — she’s compulsive, despondent, and, in playing a felt keyboard while mimicking the keys, quite possibly delusional. But the same could be said for George Briggs, who shuns society, ignores its norms and drinks too much. Jones may largely ignore the three women locked inside the wagon but his script’s treatment of those outside it illustrates the differing pressures on men and women.

Of course, that’s all well and good in hindsight, but if a film fails to hold its viewers’ attention in the moment then it doesn’t count for much in the end — however handsome it might look or how well it might be acted. There may be slightly more to The Homesman than the average Western, but the odd point of interest aside its two-hour running time is still largely a featureless landscape — one that even Meryl Streep can’t hope to disrupt. This is a story of deprivation, in more ways than one.

2.5-Stars

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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