The Homesman (France-US 2014)

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank on the trail (the three women are sleeping under the blankets).

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank on the trail (the three women are sleeping under the blankets).

I missed this on release so I was pleased to catch a showing by my local film club in Keighley’s Picture House. I love Westerns and this is a good one. It is another of the current crop of ‘international’ productions and it did seem odd to see ‘Luc Besson’ in the credits as producer for his Europa company. The French connection helped the film to get a place in the Cannes Palme d’Or line-up in 2014 but it doesn’t seem to have gone down too well in the US. This is a surprise since Tommy Lee Jones is a major figure in American cinema and his previous (modern) Western directorial credit for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) was very well received.

The Homesman has a good pedigree, being an adaptation of a novel by Glendon Swarthout whose other great Western novel was adapted as The Shootist (1976) with Don Siegel directing John Wayne for his last film. This new film is an ‘early Western’ – set in the 1850s before the Civil War and involves a perilous journey through the Nebraska ‘territory’ and across the Missouri River into the state of Iowa. It falls to a ‘spinster farmer’ (she’s all of 31!) to transport three women who have become mentally ill (because of the deprivations of the settler’s life) to possible recovery in the East. It is a daunting prospect so Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) hires (‘dragoons’?) a drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones to help her. In a way this is a miniature Wagon Master (US 1950) in reverse and because of its female leadership it’s also connected to Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010).

Jones certainly took a lot on to make the film, co-writing the script, directing and co-starring. He comes out of the production very well. The relative failure of the film with audiences seems to hinge specifically on a shocking turn/twist in the narrative about two-thirds through. I too found this shocking but I think there were enough narrative cues – revealed story data if you like – to make this event credible. Apart from this the narrative up to this point was harrowing and perhaps too ‘real’ for mainstream audiences. The ending of the film is also not conventional and may fail to satisfy some audiences. Surprisingly there are some anachronisms in the production design and the script suggesting that Jones was more interested in the look of the film than historical accuracy, But then, when you have a cinematographer as gifted as Rodrigo Prieto (responsible for Brokeback Mountain‘s wonderful landscapes) it’s tempting to just let him rip. The film does indeed look very good and the whole cast is excellent. I must pick out Hilary Swank – she would have got my vote for an Oscar ahead of Julianne Moore – and in the supporting cast the Danish actress Sonja Richter produces the most dramatic representation of anguish in her portrayal of one of the three women.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) with her washboard – keeping up appearances on the plains.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) with her washboard – keeping up appearances on the plains.

This is a ‘revisionist Western’ (cf the recent ‘traditional’ Western, The Salvation). The revision here is concerned with the ‘myth’ of the West and modes of representation. Jones makes a number of aesthetic choices which on the one hand appear highly stylised and at one point almost surreal, but which at the same time refer to aspects of the ‘real’ West not explored in many Hollywood Westerns. So, for instance, the journey across Nebraska was actually shot  in North-East New Mexico on a plain that is in effect a continuation of similar landscapes over the border with Nebraska. But this real location is made mysterious in the snow and wind – when Mary Bee loses her way on horseback and appears to be circling the same spot. The terrain is so featureless that it becomes almost an abstract space and the experience of passing through it is dreamlike. Later on a solitary building appears on the plain, almost like an oasis. It is a kind of show house for speculators hoping to ‘open up’ and exploit the potential of the territory. During the final sequence the action switches across the river and there is a palpable sense of shock that a town could be so ‘civilised’ and behaviour so decorous. The Missouri River literally becomes the ‘frontier’ between the ‘garden civilisation of the East and the ‘desert’ of the West.

The film has only recently appeared on DVD in the UK and my advice is not to miss it. This is a serious and ‘grown-up’ Western – a new approach to a fine tradition. But it isn’t what was once called a “shoot-em-up”. Most of all it’s a Western in which women are not required to be only the schoolmarm or the bar girl. You’ll have to decide whether representing the strong character of the lone female farmer and the mental illness of farmers’ wives is progressive or not.

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