With a new trailer for Tommy Lee Jones‘ The Homesman (Roadside, 11.14) having popped, here’s a condensed version of my 5.18.14 Cannes Film Festival review: “Just because it’s a feminist western with an oddly unusual story that regards the plight of Old West women in a compassionate light…that doesn’t mean it gets a pass. It basically says that life on the prairie could be so brutal and unforgiving that some women went plumb out of their heads; it also says some were so gripped with despair that they offed themselves. That’s a new kind of sadness to bring into a western, and that’s what The Homesman is selling. But it only warrants a modest salute.
“Based on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout (The Shootist, Where The Boys Are), it’s a well-made, handsomely-shot drama (set in Nebraska territory) with a few plot turns that are just too what-the-fucky to add up or calculate in a way that feels right. It’s an odd, minor-key effort at best.
“The basic drill is about Hilary Swank‘s Mary Bee Cuddy, a tough, disciplined farmer who lives alone, enlisting Tommy Lee Jones’ George Briggs, an ornery claim jumper whom she saves from a hanging death, on a journey together that starts out as The African Queen and then gradually devolves into a kind of gloomy, depressive weirdness.
“Cuddy has volunteered to take three wives who’ve lost their minds from an overload of grief and trauma back ‘east’ (i.e., Missouri), and she needs Briggs to help out and watch her back. It’s a little too coincidental, I think, that the three disturbed ‘cuckoo clocks’ (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have all gone around the bend within roughly the same time frame, but you have to accept this. One has lost her marbles due to her children dying from diptheria; the other two are just nutzoid with one having dumped her infant child into an outhouse crapper.
“I’m not going to spoil what happens on the journey but it’s a moderately satisfying film for the first two acts (or first two-thirds), but then we’re confronted with two third-act occurences that really don’t make basic sense. One in particular is so curious and unforeseen (not to mention deflating as it involves the departure of a significant character) that something snapped inside me when it happened.
“That said, Jones directs with admirable restraint and steadiness and a general less-is-more approach. The script he co-wrote with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver is similarly clean and under-stated, but I think Jones fucked himself and the movie by sticking too closely to Swarthout’s original novel. Rodrigo Prieto‘s widescreen cinematography is aces. Ditto Roberto Silvi and Marco Beltrami‘s score.”