Skip to main content

I live uncommonly alone.

The Homesman
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Tommy Lee Jones, the living embodiment of grizzled, directs his second western, but first in a period setting. The Homesman, an adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel, is a disjointed, listless affair. TLJ has more than enough material to play with, on the theme of women’s lot in the old west, but he ends up fashioning a picture that revolves around his male protagonist.


Doubtless the motives in shifting emphasis were noble ones. Rather than an empowering feminist western, this is the unvarnished way things really were, when the value of women rested on their capacity for breeding and making an obedient wife. The three mad women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) whose state initiate the picture’s central journey have “failed” in their duties as wife and baby maker; one’s offspring have died of diphtheria, another drowns hers in an outhouse, while another fails to become pregnant despite being daily raped by her husband. Their spouses are at best neglectful and at worst habitually abusive.


Contrasting this is Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) “plain and bossy” and moneyed, who cannot lure a husband; at 31 she is near enough out to pasture. When the menfolk in her small Nebraskan farming community fail to take responsibility for delivering the women to a church in Iowa. Cuddy assumes the mantle of “homesman”, agreeing to lead the journey, and employs the services of George Briggs (TLJ) a disreputable, disheveled claim jumper she saves from lynching.


So far, so intriguing as a premise. TLJ’s is a world filled with craven men, and Briggs is only nominally a good guy. He’s purely in it for the money, quite willing to leave Cuddy and the insane women alone in the desert. Those encountered on the way are lowlifes (Tim Blake Nelson’s horseman who steals away one of them for himself) or conmen (James Spader’s hotel owner). John Lithgow’s preacher, who blesses Cuddy’s trip, is similarly quite spineless.


But the picture is unable to find a strong enough perspective. Cuddy is turned down by men who are beneath her (Evan Jones, claiming she is “too damn bossy”, Briggs himself), but she is contrastingly religiously dogmatic and sufficiently determined that she sets out solo with these women (albeit relieved to have Briggs’ help). When she commits suicide, two thirds of the way through, it is not only a shock because we don’t see it coming, but also to the narrative, one from which Jones is unable to right the ship.


We can see why she does it; in a world where here only status comes from marriage she is effectively exiled. She throws herself at Briggs the night before, who turns down her marriage proposal but submits to sexual congress. It may well appear that there is no choice for her; she can remain alone, but even if she can find someone, those she is delivering to Iowa aren’t the greatest advert for married life. Swank, partial to put upon characters ever since The Next Karate Kid, is outstanding, but Jones is unable to convey the process by which she ends up reaching her choice, such that she would derelict her duty to these women, and commit the sin of suicide.


The final ignominy of her gravestone being kicked into a river is (likely) an intentional commentary on how her suffering means nothing. Even Briggs, who comes to profess her merits (when attempting to woo a much younger and less plain Halee Steinfeld), is only impacted by her but for a passing spell. He has the freedom of lawlessness and ignoring societal mores unavailable to her. Briggs even warns Steinfeld not to go west with a man who’s made a claim on a farm he hasn’t built yet: not to get sucked into an arrangement that fosters madness. But there’s something wrong here, when the picture is bringing the male gaze around to delivering the wisdom and insights.


The mad women are merely silent and not so silent cyphers; we’re delivered flashbacks attesting to their states, but Jones has no interest in exploring their condition. Again, you can call that a reflection of the times, but it seems as much about convenience of narrative. Grace Gummer has the wherewithal to blow Blake Nelson’s head off when the scene requires it, but otherwise occupies an entirely self-involved place.


TLJ appears to be drawing on the spirit of ’70 revisionist westerns, where things just happen, so the lack of narrative closure is a commentary on both the historical neatness of the genre and absence of rules in that world. But the lack of service paid to his female characters, and the indulgence of Briggs (the kind of colourful worldy-wise character that feels intensely familiar, since TLJ could play this kind of part in his sleep) undermines the picture. TLJ has populated the sidelines with a raft of familiar faces (Lithgow, Spader, Nelson, Jesse Plemons, William Fichtner, Meryl Streep) and Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is striking and memorable (from an early tableau of Fichtner standing amid dead cattle onwards), but his telling undermines him. The Homesman ends up disjointed and jarring in its shifts of focus.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

If you never do anything, you never become anyone.

An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan deserves all the attention she received for her central performance, and the depiction of the ‘60s is commendably subdued. I worried there was going to be a full-blown music montage sequence at the climax that undid all the good work, but thankfully it was fairly low key. 

Alfred Molina and Olivia Williams are especially strong in the supporting roles, and it's fortunate for credibility’s sake that that Orlando Bloom had to drop out and Dominic Cooper replaced him.
***1/2

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Can you close off your feelings so you don’t get crippled by the moral ambiguity of your violent actions?

Spider-Man Worst to Best

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Everyone who had a talent for it lived happily ever after.

Empire 30:  Favourite Films of the Last 30 Years
Empire’s readers’ poll to celebrate its thirtieth birthday – a request for the ultimate thirty films of the last thirty years, one per year from 1989 – required a bit of thought, particularly since they weren’t just limiting it to your annual favourite (“These can be the films that impressed you the most, the ones that stuck with you, that brought you joy, or came to you at just the right time”). Also – since the question was asked on Twitter, although I don’t know how rigorous they’re being; does it apply to general release, or does it include first film festival showings? – they’re talking UK release dates, rather than US, calling for that extra modicum of mulling. To provide more variety, I opted to limit myself to just one film per director; otherwise, my thirty would have been top heavy with, at very least, Coen Brothers movies. So here’s they are, with runners-up and reasoning:

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

What, you're going to walk in there like it's the commie Disneyland or something?

Stranger Things 3 (2019)
(SPOILERS) It’s very clear by this point that Stranger Things isn’t going to serve up any surprises. It’s operating according to a strict formula, one requiring the opening of the portal to the Upside Down every season and an attendant demagorgon derivative threat to leak through, only to be stymied at the last moment by our valorous team. It’s an ‘80s sequel cycle through and through, and if you’re happy with it functioning exclusively on that level, complete with a sometimes overpowering (over)dose of nostalgia references, this latest season will likely strike you as just the ticket.

You want to investigate me, roll the dice and take your chances.

A Few Good Men (1992)
(SPOILERS) Aaron Sorkin has penned a few good manuscripts in his time, but A Few Good Men, despite being inspired by an actual incident (one related to him by his sister, an army lawyer on a case at the time), falls squarely into the realm of watchable but formulaic. I’m not sure I’d revisited the entire movie since seeing it at the cinema, but my reaction is largely the same: that it’s about as impressively mounted and star-studded as Hollywood gets, but it’s ultimately a rather empty courtroom drama.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.