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

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…

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He's going to emasculate our nuclear deterrent and bring the whole damn country to its knees… because of his dreams.

Dreamscape (1984)
(SPOILERS) I wasn’t really au fait with movies’ box office performance until the end of the ‘80s, so I think I had an idea that Dennis Quaid (along with Jeff Bridges) was a much bigger star than he was, just on the basis of the procession of cool movies he showed up in (The Right Stuff, Enemy Mine, Innerspace, D.O.A.) The truth was, the public resisted all attempts to make him The Next Big Thing, not that his sly-grinned, cocky persona throughout the decade would lead you to believe his dogged lack of success had any adverse effect on his mood. Dreamscape was one of his early leading-man roles, and if it’s been largely forgotten, it also inherits a welcome cult status, not only through being pulpy and inventive on a fairly meagre budget, but by being pretty good to boot. It holds up.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

The aliens are not coming, just so you know.

The X-Files 11.1: My Struggle III
(SPOILERS) Good grief. Have things become so terminal for Chris Carter that he has to retcon his own crap from the previous season, rather than the (what he perceived as) crap written by others? Carter, of course, infamously pretended the apocalyptic ending of Millennium Season Two never happened, upset by the path Glen Morgan and James Wong, left to their own devices, took with his baby. Their episode was one of the greats of that often-ho-hum series, so the comedown was all the unkinder as a result. In My Struggle III, at least, Carter’s rewriting something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Only, he replaces it with something that is even worse in the second.

I'm going to open an X-file on this bran muffin.

The X-Files 11.2: This
(SPOILERS) Glen Morgan returns with a really good idea, certainly one with much more potential than his homelessness tract Home Again in Season 10, but seems to give up on its eerier implications, and worse has to bash it round the head to fit the season’s “arc”. Nevertheless, he’s on very comfortable ground with the Mulder-Scully dynamic in This, who get to spend almost the entire episode in each other’s company and might be on the best form here since the show came back, give or take a Darin.

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water (2017)
(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once mo…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…