Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review: The Homesman

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Tommy Lee Jones' "The Homesman" is a strange little movie in all the right ways. Both a feminist western and a tale of grueling life on the prairie - oh yeah, and also a character piece, although which character is given more emphasis goes back and forth - the picture proves that Jones is formidable both in front of and behind the camera.

The story is set in the Nebraska territory, where a single woman (Hilary Swank) must take on a task that the cowardly men of her hometown refuse - to escort three insane women in a covered wagon for hundreds of miles and drop them off at a church in Iowa that has agreed to house them.

On her desolate journey, Swank's Mary Bee Cuddy comes across a ne'er do well named Briggs (Jones), whom she saves from a hangman's noose on the agreement that he will help her with her errand. At first, Briggs is mostly along for comedic effect, but his relationship to Cuddy eventually deepens and so does his character.

For a western, "The Homesman" is relatively nonviolent. There is one encounter with Native Americans that is quickly defused. And the film's only villains are a group of men (led by James Spader) who lack character and empathy.

One of the elements that makes Jones' film work so well is its ability to surprise. As I'd mentioned, this is a strange film and there is at least one major shock you won't see coming. But rather using this scene, which I wouldn't dare give away, as a plot point, it is put to use to further develop one of the film's characters.

The movie's desolate mood and sequences of frightening behavior - a baby being thrown in a privy hole, an insane woman banging her head against a wagon wheel, a sudden outburst of violence over a doll - create a sense of unease, which is juxtaposed with the general goodness of the picture's two lead characters.

Jones, whose impressive debut "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" was also difficult to classify, has proven to be one of the greater success stories in recent years of actors trying their hand at directing. As a filmmaker, he has a distinctive voice as well as a favored genre ("Estrada" was western themed, while "The Homesman" is a straight-up western). And he's a great director of actors. Here's to hoping that he again steps behind the camera - only, this time, doesn't wait nine years to do so.

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