' ' Cinema Romantico: The Homesman

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Homesman

"The Homesman" opens with what appears to be an old-school courtin'. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a New Yorker who has journeyed west to a small frontier town in the Nebraska territory, is paid a visit by Bob Giffen (Evan Jones). One might be obliged to label Ms. Cuddy a "spinster" but one might be even more obliged to label Mr. Giffen an "obtuse yokel". She speaks with, you know, grammar and he speaks as if his words are ill-fittedly spilling out the sides of his mouth. After supper, she plays piano and he falls asleep. He then pulls a block of cheese out of his pocket and offers her some. She reciprocates with a marriage proposal. He acquires the eyes of a sewer rat and declines. After all, she's "plain" and "bossy", never mind that he's a dunce carrying around cheese. And it's hard not to feel awful for Mary Bee. Not because he turned her down, mind you, nor even because he reduces her to moronic stereotypes, necessarily, but because she felt compelled to ask. Because she's a woman and a woman has to be married, right, and so, well, might as well ask this guy.

The film was directed and co-written by Swank's co-star, Tommy Lee Jones, whose choice of roles, infamous gruffness and face like a craggy rock worn by the wind has always seemed to embody a recognizable sense of masculinity. His character, George Briggs, first glimpsed in long-johns with soot on that rocky face after being rousted from a home that's not his comes across like a definitive old coot, a 19th century caveman. His character may have deserted the army but he still seems John Wayne-approved. Then again, John Wayne was always the hero, and even if his heroism was, occasionally, rendered partly cloudy, he would never let himself be the fall guy. Jones, on the other hand, in his very own film, makes himself the butt of the joke.

It's not that "The Homesman" is a piece of advocacy for feminism, per se, so much as it is a rejection of male chauvinism, a glorious revisionist piece. Jones' borrows the framework and the wide-open vistas of so many old westerns and then uses the genre and its tendency toward misogyny against itself, a fierce and deliberate mea culpa. Hell, it's as self-aware in its intentions as "Birdman", brilliantly wielding its fine cast with a cognizant wink-wink shove. James Spader turns up as a comically boorish hotel proprietor; Meryl Streep appears as a glowing beacon, a den mother to young women everywhere; and Hailee Steinfeld, who's always seemed a bit like a Swank-in-training, shows up as a Swank-in-training.

The narrative revolves around three women in the town (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) who have been driven to the point of psychosis on account of god-awful personal turmoil. The community, and specifically their husbands, have essentially given up on them and decided to ferry them across the Missouri River and into Iowa to a home for the mentally ill. Naturally, the husbands, oafs the lot of 'em, admit they are not up for such an undertaking, and Mary Bee volunteers in their stead. At first, the men scoff. Then, when she calls them out, they acquiesce. Still, it's a harsh land, filled with mean weather and movie indians, and so when she happens upon George in the midst of a hanging and saves his sorry buckskins, she enlists his help. For a little cash, of course.

Swank and Jones forge a superbly dry rapport, moderate buddies at the horses' reigns, a (much, much) funnier "Wagons East" as they deal with a typical list of interruptions for this sort of journey. Until something happens, that is, and that something not only turns the film on its head but threatens to break an axle and send "The Homesman" skidding off course into something less problematically conventional than frustratingly dude-centric.

In the moment, that argument seems genuine. In the moment, I had these thoughts myself. But the film has an acutely and wonderfully weird sense of intelligence and purpose, turning George Briggs into an avenging, if humorless, angel, a cowboy seeking to right the wrong of all those cowboy chauvinist pigs of so many movies past. There are few sequences in a 2014 movie as haunting as his stoic, one-man extermination of a deluxe hotel in the middle of nowhere that becomes the black-humored personification of every overbearing asshole who thought inalienable rights didn't pertain to women.

The end, though, is where the film arrives triumphantly at the station by purposely going off the rails, stripping its main character of all knowledge obtained, and sending the woman the film persuasively argues can hang with any of these masculine blockheads symbolically floating away into oblivion. The Duke would have approved. That's why it's so astonishing; that's why it cuts like a knife.

1 comment:

Candice Frederick said...

it really is a pleasant surprise.