Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Homesman

I love westerns. Always have. Some of the golden oldies sit amongst my favourite films of all time, particularly The Good, The Bad & The Ugly and The Searchers. Like with most genres, TV has been leading the way recently, with the superb Hell on Wheels and Deadwood delivering excellent Western entertainment. But in recent years, the genre has struggled a bit in cinema and for every modern classic we’ve had; there’s been a rather poor attempt somewhere. So with that in mind, how does The Homesman fare?

Directed by Tommy Lee Jones and out now on Blu-Ray and DVD comes The Homesman. Based on the 1988 novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout, it tells the tale of strong single woman Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), and her quest to escort three mentally unstable women to somewhere they can get the help they so need in the Old West. Along the way she meets gunslinger George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), who agrees to help her on her journey. But the road is long and hard, and Mary learns that her task is a lot more treacherous than she anticipated.

The film starts out as something of a ‘feminist western’, with a strong focus on Hilary Swank’s Mary and the idea of her living ‘uncommonly alone’ and doing jobs that ‘men should do’. Usually women in westerns are either bad-ass gunslingers (Bad Girls) or damsels in distress. Mary Bee Cuddy is somewhere in between, which is rare for the genre. She’s strong enough to start her journey alone and she won’t take any shit from men telling her she’s ‘only a woman’, but she’s also not too strong that she won’t ask George Briggs to assist her on her adventure. It’s nice to have her as the hero, or heroine as it were, with Tommy Lee Jones playing second fiddle. Nice of him to do that, as he also directs the film. But regardless of him giving Swank the spotlight, he steals each scene he’s in whether he means to or not. That’s just the power of Tommy Lee Jones. He’s fantastic in this – easily the best he’s been for a long time; possibly even better than he was in Lincoln.

This is no bright, colourful, John Wayne-esque western. This film is harsh. More in the spirit of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven or the Coen Brothers’ True Grit (two examples of modern westerns done right), The Homesman does not shy away from the harsh realities of the time.  The cinematography is gorgeous, but still undeniably bleak. The film is stunningly well shot and brilliantly produced across the board, with a wonderful score, costume and production design – it really transported you back to the 1800s and makes you wonder how on Earth the human race managed to even survive such dark times. And Tommy Lee Jones’ direction was great for the first half…

However, around the halfway mark, I started having problems with The Homesman. Firstly, the three mad women who are the whole point of this journey felt largely ignored after around half an hour – their screaming and wailing which has been almost constant stopped, they were hardly spoken to or acknowledged, they were hardly even shown. When they were shown, they were just background. It felt a bit unusual they’d be so neglected in the film, after being such a large focus when they were introduced and started the story. Then a big twist happened which I shan’t spoil, but quite frankly it felt poorly executed and rather out of place. Whilst you could argue that there were a few hints towards it earlier in the film, it still felt a bit out of the blue. From that point on, the film truly changed, culminating in another jarring tonal shift that totally changes the sort of person one of the major characters is, and how we perceive them. Like the twist before it, it felt rushed and shoved in with little build-up and didn’t feel right. But hey, I haven’t read the original novel. Maybe that problem lies with the source material, although I do feel like it could’ve been handled better on screen.

On the whole, The Homesman was a harsh, gritty western – how the genre should be – but brought nothing new to the table at the end of the day. And whilst the first half was great; the second half disappointed. The film was stunningly well shot and brilliantly produced across the board, with a wonderful score, costume and production design. But the narrative misfires in the second half just let the film down and made for a rather underwhelming experience.

The Homesman gets 3/5 stars – one for each of the crazy ladies on the journey.


Sam Love

The Homesman at CeX

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