Another hidden gem slips under the radar
Tommy Lee Jones' sophomore writer/director/actor (anti-)Western puts Hilary Swank front and centre in a time of pure madness.One of my most anticipated movies of the year, this little-known feature has all but slipped under everybody's radars, released with next to no promotion to audiences who probably aren't all that interested in a Western starring a grizzly pushing-70 Jones and the once-promising Swank, who hasn't had a critical or commercial success in a decade, and based on a book that few will have heard of by an acclaimed (late) author who hasn't had a book adapted into film form since the 70s.
Indeed it has been almost that long since Glendon Swarthout's novel was first optioned to be made into a film (he wrote the book that was made into Wayne's career-capping The Shootist); 1988 saw Paul Newman attached to the role now taken by Tommy Lee Jones, a role which would have certainly suited the actor for much the same reason that it appeals to Jones now.Bleak and brutal, dark and oppressive, Jones' portrayal of the Old West - more specifically the mid-West, in the mid-1800s - manages to elicit a combination of Western, Revisionist Western and Anti-Western sentiments.
It also provides a very rare insight into women during the period; painting refreshingly authentic portraits of not one, but four different young woman all struggling to survive within the antiquated remarkably insular expanse of the West.
The story follows the spinster Mary Bee Cuddy, disdained with lonely Nebraskan life, and struggling to fight off depression. Although strong-minded, she lives in a world dominated by men - where a woman's life is defined by her marriage status and ability to bear children - and is increasingly wounded by the rejections she has had from potential suitors. When she hears about three young who need to be transported to a church in another state - for the mentally insane - she lobbies for the job and gets it, but does not quite realise how hard it is going to be. Increasingly aware of the threats from outside - and from within by the mentally unstable young women - Cuddy reluctantly enlists the help of a mysterious stranger she encounters along the way to help her make the journey.
Jones' vision of the West is both striking in its bleak brutality and refreshingly original in its portrayal of women from the period.
Certainly a showcase for the various familiar faces on board - from John Lithgow's Reverend to James Spader's hotelier; to Meryl Streep's scene-stealing cameo and even a bit from Hailee Steinfeld, who seems to have embraced the genre; not to mention the three madwomen (Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter and Miranda Otto) who bring a realism to their roles and pity for even their most deprived acts - this is really a two-hander in terms of defining performances. Jones and Swank dominate with their presence and engage with their sheer chemistry; from bitter antagonism to reluctant companionship. It's a credit to Jones that he not only manages to flesh out the various parts, and give room to his players to breathe life into their respective roles - no matter how big or small - but that he steps back to let Swank take centre-stage at every possible opportunity. Whilst his presence still takes precedence, it's a clever tactic and shows the skill of a director who actually has something to offer.
Boasting some striking visuals of the bleak open plains, some even more bleak portrayals of the prejudice and preconceptions that defined the era, and a tremendously evocative sound that positively brings the howling cold-swept expanses to life, The Homesman is a worthy addition to the genre; a genre which has seen great strides recently (Django Unchained) and which will, hopefully, be able to keep some momentum going between that and Tarantino's highly anticipated next effort, The Hateful Eight. In the meantime, don't miss out on these small gems, no matter how hidden they are.
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