Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Cannes review of The Homesman

Tommy Lee Jones roughs up the festival with a moving, if flawed, western involving a mighty trek.

Sun, May 18, 2014, 11:29




Directed by Tommy Lee Jones

Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld

122 min, in competition

Tommy Lee Jones has a suitable face for the western. Come to think of it, if you had sufficiently small horses you could, now that the furrows have deepened, film a western on the rugged surface of his unfriendly visage.

This is Jones’s second exercise in the genre to compete for the Palme d’Or. Nine years after The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada won him the best actor’s prize, he returns with a somewhat more conventional — though still downright odd — prairie fable adapted from a novel by Glendon Swarthout. Hilary Swank stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a stubborn (is the word “ornery”?) pioneer maintaining a farm in what was then still the Nebraska Territory. Despite her apparent independence, she is hungry for a husband and is prepared to take the initiative and ask the question herself. Unfortunately, her nearest neighbour dismisses her as too plain and too bossy.

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The film reaches its fulcrum when the local preacher is asked to deal with an apparent outbreak of madness in the area. Three women, succumbing to the awful pressures of frontier life, have lost their minds (there’s no point trying to use more sensitive contemporary terms in this context) and need to be transported back east across the Missouri. Mary Bee finds herself saddled with the task of accompanying them. At first she seems confident, but, after rescuing George Briggs (Jones), a claim jumper, from lynching, she decides to press him into acting as her guide and bodyguard. They pack the women into a rickety wooden cart and set forth.

The relationship between Briggs and Mary Bee is a familiar one. The African Queen is not the only film to saddle a pious, slightly humourless woman with a charismatic, drunken old reprobate. The controls have, however, been somewhat tweaked in this instance. Played with great sympathy by Swank, Mary Bee is, unlike Katharine Hepburn’s character in the earlier film, revealed to be hiding a mess of sublimated complexes. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the plains may also have taken the toll on her psyche too. Briggs is a deal less nuanced and much more of a genre type. Rooster Cogburn could step into this codger’s shoes without significantly disturbing the film’s balance. Both men are rough hewn. Both appear capable of change.

It is in the film’s attitude to and its treatment of women that we encounter the most interesting colours and the greatest difficulties. The Homesman clearly thinks itself to be something of a feminist text. The psychological meltdowns suffered by George and Mary’s passengers are triggered by misuse at the hands of their menfolk. Jones has gone so far as to suggest that points are being made about the continuing abuse of females in modern society. This is all very well. But, the depiction of the three travellers as lunatics and Mary Bee’s own eventual emotional sagging stress victimhood without allowing much possibility for female empowerment. All the women are defined in terms of their relationship to men. An eventual suggestion that Mary Bay represents the spirit of American womanhood seems sentimental at best and bathetic at worst.

As regards the depiction of mental illness, the less said, the sooner the psychiatric profession will regain their composure. They bite, fume and mutter like the occupants of attics in Victorian melodrama.

Shake off those difficulties, however, and you are left with a hugely enjoyable, often very funny, elegiac western (all westerns are elegiac these days). The rhymes between Marco Beltrami’s  gorgeous central musical refrain and Fauré’s requiem may not be a total accident. A violent episode in an isolated hotel offers black humour and provides James Spader with the opportunity to do a decent Irish accent.

When the party eventually reaches the civilised east — and meet up with Meryl Streep in a throwaway cameo — it seems safe, settled and ordered. But it also seems dry and lifeless. The modern mid-west, with its blank suburban streets, is already beginning to form itself and men like George Briggs must face up to their eventual banishment to the reliquary. We’ve seen this broken hero before. But no man is better equipped to invigorate the archetype than Tommy Lee Jones.

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