Monday, December 8, 2014

The Homesman

Alternate Title:  Bitches Be Crazy

One sentence synopsis:    A single pioneer woman and an old-hand claim jumper must take three catatonic women from Nebraska to Iowa in the early 1850s.

Things Havoc liked:  Like with many movies in this review project, I chose to see this movie because of its cast, a cast that could sunder mountains and leap tall buildings with a single bound. Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, James Spader, John Lithgow, William Fichtner, Hailee Steinfeld, this is the cast you assemble when it's time to blow me away. And when the movie in question is a western, then casting someone like Tommy Lee Jones as the lead (effectively) is the icing atop the cake. Jones is a national treasure, one of my favorite actors, whom I enjoy watching even in bad movies (I can even stomach Batman Forever), and particularly when it comes to Westerns, one of the grand old men of the art form, worthy of being spoken of in company with Clint Eastwood or James Coburn. In everything from Lonesome Dove to The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Jones has shown himself an almost quintessential western actor, and given that he also co-produced and directed this movie (as he did the aforementioned Three Burials), I was stoked to see this. It also helped that my alternatives were Dumb and Dumber Too or The Interview.

I've been hearing lengthy, wizened recitations on "The Death of the Western" for as long as I've been alive, so if you don't mind, we'll leave the post-modern millenerianism at the door. That said, the Homesman is not a traditional western, being bereft of gunfights, action in general, or, to be perfectly frank, the West. Set in Nebraska of the 1850s, one of the starkest and bleakest landscapes I've ever imagined, the focus here is not on the West as a place of opportunity and adventure, nor even a place of hardship and loss, but a place of almost unfathomable isolation combined with abjectly primitive conditions that lead one to wonder what possible fate could draw people out there. No excited wagon trains of would-be settlers seeking a better life here, this is a cold, miserable place, where people eke out a living while desperately trying to retain their very sanity. Poised on the knife-edge of this struggle is Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a single woman approaching middle age (a rarity to say the least back then), whose prospects for marriage and simple companionship are dampened by her blunt nature, plain looks (it takes some doing to make Hilary Swank look homely), and the sheer lack of people in Nebraska, particularly single men. I haven't seen Swank in ten years, not since Million Dollar Baby, but she fits right back into the swing of things here, as a somewhat-neurotic frontierswoman who volunteers to help take three completely crazy women back to Iowa, despite the fact that it means leaving her evidently prosperous homestead behind. One gets the very real sense from her, though it is never spelled out, that she isn't doing this out of the kindness of her heart, but because she suspects that if she spends one more minute in Nebraska, she will actually go mad. I've known quite a few people who've gone through that state even today who could sympathize.

Tommy Lee Jones meanwhile, plays George Briggs, though we never discover if this is his real name or not, a claim jumper whom Cuddy encounters while being lynched, and enlists to help her get the three women in question back to civilization where they can be cared for. Given the women's catatonia, and Cuddy's own bag of issues, Jones, in consequence, gets to play the adult in the room most of the time, something he's always been good at. We learn bits and pieces about him from half-mentioned anecdotes and small gestures, and unlike a number of writer/director/actors I could mention (Costner comes to mind), Jones clearly does not intend for him to be a stand-in for Jesus. He drinks, gambles, drunkenly dances and sings to the accompaniment of his own gunfire, to say nothing of his claim jumping in the first place. That said, the movie does not really deal in such concepts as "good" and "bad" guys, having neither villains to defeat nor heroes to follow. It is merely the story of a number of people in a strange place doing a strange thing, and what befalls them as they try to do it.

Things Havoc disliked:  Or rather that's what it would be about if anything actually befell these people.

I occasionally encounter movies like this, films that want to be defined more by what they aren't than by what they are. This isn't always a bad idea, but it does lend itself to issues where a film, desirous of not being a "traditional" thing, forgets to be anything whatsoever. The trailers, cut together as they are to promise a narrative, really represent instead the entire film's narrative pushed together, with the rest of the film being filled with... well nothing really. And given just how much of the cast I have yet to speak of, that's quite a problem.

Let's begin with the crazy women in question, all three of whom are given hints towards an actual backstory, one having lost her children to diptheria, one raped repeatedly by her husband, and the third having gone simply mad enough to kill her own newborn baby. Played by, among other people Miranda Otto (Eowyn), and Grace Gummer (daughter of Meryl Streep), one could imagine all manner of interesting stories being told through the lenses of these women who found life on the frontier utterly intolerable and lost their minds as a result. Instead, the movie treats them like props, leaving them catatonic and mute the entire length of the film, MacGuffins for the main characters to labor over getting to Iowa. No character development whatsoever is afforded to them, which would be fine if the intention of the story were to present a situation wherein change is impossible or some other sort of stylistic choice. But instead it's as though the entire purpose of having these characters was forgotten about, and the film might as well have been about transporting mules.

And it's not just the three mental patients that this happens to. Assembling a cast of actors this talented had to be hard work. The least you could do would be to find something for them to do. Meryl Streep, of all people, who I maintain is the best actor in the world, gets about five minutes of screentime near the end of the movie, where her role is... well damned if I know what her role is. She seems to exist purely to relieve one character of a plot device. James Spader meanwhile turns up halfway through the film as a hotelier in the middle of nowhere, a role so strange that I can only assume that vast chunks of his work was left on the cutting room floor. Halee Steinfeld, who was so good in True Grit (my very first review!) seems to exist solely so that Tommy Lee Jones can buy her a pair of shoes. I realize that a film this stacked is gonna have limited space to go around, but nothing happens in this movie for most of its runtime. Surely with this many actors in this rich a setting with this much potential for psychodrama, SOMETHING could have been come up with?

Or maybe not. Maybe this was the intention all along, to present some kind of super-minimalist western in the vein of a Jim Jarmush film or something. But if that's the case, then the same question applies here that I ask whenever Jim Jarmush himself comes to town: Why? Why was this film made? What story seemed so vital that it needed to be told? Was this supposed to be some kind of mediation on Prairie Madness (yes, it was a thing. Click the link)? If so, why do we get to do nothing with the crazy women beyond checking in on them once in a while to make sure that yep, still crazy! Was it a character study of Swank and Lee's characters? Maybe, but then why do we not actually get to see their characters in more than snippets, and why does so much of the movie consist of them not revealing anything to the audience. The film gets so obsessed by the end with not being any kind of "traditional" western (which is dead, you know) that it winds up not being anything at all. The last forty-five minutes of the film in particular, while they are shot and acted well (as was inevitable given the cast in question), almost literally consists of nothing more than a series of events, unconnected with one another, which happen, and then are over. Nothing is learned. Nothing is done.

Final thoughts:   I cited Jim Jarmush above, because he's made movies like this one before, among them the almost unwatchable Dead Man, which also starred a number of A-list actors in a western setting accomplishing not very much at all. The Homesman is nowhere near as unbearable as Dead Man was, but it is still a fairly boring movie, competently executed, but for purposes I cannot fathom, even a week later. My viewing companion, whose perspective on these things is very different than mine (for which everyone concerned is grateful), informed me that this movie has received a great deal of attention in feminist circles, though why this is the case, neither she nor I could guess. It is a movie about two people taking three catatonic other people across an empty terrain until they no longer have to do so. If that's your cup of tea, then look no further.

As for me? I think I'll stick to Jim Jarmush-like films actually made by Jim Jarmush. If nothing else, his boring movies are usually inventive.

Final Score:  5/10

Next Week:   Either war docs or Iranian vampires.  TUNE IN NEXT TIME TO FIND OUT!!!

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