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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 12.09.14] drama western

Generally speaking, the western has never been a genre of particular appeal to me. I always thought of them as those old boring things with horses and men with hats, guns, occasionally fabulous scores and Clint Eastwood being a badass but generally speaking this is my father's genre, one that had never much appealed to me. The western never really disappeared but the 2000's ushered in the era of the modern western; sometimes violent (The Proposition, No Country for Old Men), sometimes pensive (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) sometimes about survival (Meek's Cutoff) and occasionally even a family drama (There Will Be Blood). All great movies I love so yes, The Homesman, with its female lead, instantly caught my attention.

For some reason when Tommy Lee Jones decided to direct, it seemed natural that he'd veer towards the western. What's less natural and rather surprising is that his second feature film is not so much centered on a cowboy but a group of women.

Adapted from Glendon Swarthout's novel, The Homesman stars Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy, a successful homesteader looking for any opportunity to get married. She wants a family but the men are put off not only by Mary's success but by her independence. When three women, driven mad by pioneer life, need to be taken across Nebraska and across the river to a church where they will be taken care of, Mary volunteers for the job.

Aware that it may not be the best idea to travel with three crazy women on her own across the territory and brutally aware that few men will even consider accompanying her, Mary stumbles on the opportunity to bribe George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), an army deserter and claim jumper, into helping her on the trek. What follows is a quiet tale of depression, desperation and survival as the group travel the long months across the Nebraska territory surviving not only the elements, the wild animals and the Indians but also themselves.

Though it's not completely vacant of action, The Homesman is far less interested in gunplay and far more concerned with the drama which unfolds between Briggs and Mary. What begins as an awkward relationship of necessity slowly morphs into something more personal. In part, the change comes as a result of the desolate landscape and having no one else to speak and confide in but there's more to it than that. Briggs treats Mary like an equal, and over the course of their travel, the pair develop a relationship that is much like a marriage which eventually leads Mary to make a decision that will change her life.

On a thematic level, I have some concerns about the turn the story takes at the end of the second act. It's a bold storytelling choice, switching the central narrative partway through the story, but the consequences for the character of Mary feel out of joint with the rest of the film's handling of femininity. It's certainly a blunder but the movie mostly recovers from it, in part with the strength of the final act and in part thanks to everything leading up to Mary's questionable action.

Perhaps because westerns are a hard sell, particularly a revisionist western like this one, The Homesman seems to have emerged with little fanfare but Jones' newest turn behind the camera deserves a look. Not only does it feature great performances, particularly from Swank who carries much of the movie's first act and Jones himself, who brings an unexpected but much appreciated in light of the movie's themes, comedy to the role, the movie also features spectacular cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto. Throw in some complicated thematic elements and you've got yourself a must see movie.

The Homesman is now playing in limited release across the US.

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