Diana Drumm is reporting from Cannes for the The Film Experience.
Based on the award-winning novel (that Paul Newman was attached to for years) by Glendon Swarthout (“The Shootist”), The Homesman is a bizarre, unwieldy Western about 31 year-old spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) and questionable character Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) who are driving three insane women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) back East for treatment, or at least respite from their literally-maddening frontier lives.
Or for a convoluted, reference-laden way to generalize it all, think of The Homesman as an inverse of the Robert Taylor-starring not-quite-classic Westward The Women (1951) meets the Glenn Close-starring made-for-TV movie Sarah, Plain and Tall (1991) with the madness and mismatches of Quills (2000, Briggs being the less couth, toned down subversive Marquis) divided by the stunning Western cinematography of Brokeback Mountain (2005, via Oscar nominee Rodrigo Prieto). Apologies, my brain is flooded with movies.
Scale of Tommy Lee Jones orneriness, gender politics, and star cameos after the jump...
Like fellow Cannes competitor Mr. Turner, The Homesman opens on a wide shot of an expansive rural landscape, 1855 Nebraska heartlands in place of those 1810s Netherland fields. (19th century is trending!) While the other had two Dutch peasant women trudged into its opening shot, The Homesman has “plain and bossy” Mary and her mule plow their way through the field and into frame. With a sturdy countenance and a decent stake of land, all Mary Bee needs is a husband for those lonely days and nights on the farm, and since she's still in child-bearing years, maybe for a few wee bairns of their own. In the remote town of De Loup, she strikes out with the limited male population, who are either married or willing to go back East to find a younger, more congenial, less plain wife. (For reference, Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddie lands somewhere between The Heiress Olivia de Havilland and Gone With The Wind Olivia de Havilland on the spectrum of cinematic plainness,,which means not as dick-shrinkingly ugly as the men around her would lead you to believe!)
When three local women go insane, Mary volunteers to transport them to a preacher’s wife back in Iowa as none of their husbands or local preacher (John Lithgow lovingly chewing the scenery) are willing or capable of undertaking such a journey. Along the way Mary enlists the help of fellow 19th century social pariah, a vagrant old coot in dirtied longjohns named Briggs (Jones). The two begin a fateful journey through the unsung “Wild West” of desolation with its underbelly of Manifest Destiny where women were still legal property akin to farm animals and the men treated them barely any better.
In spite of how intriguing all of the above may read, the film falters under jarring tonal jumps, going from humor to horror to reconciliation to despair within single scenes and without warning or transitional grace. And the narrative swings from a female driven Western to a man's redemption through his kindness to women, undoing whatever good it's up to. Instead of investigating female dynamics or identity issues, the film prefers broad stroke tableaus of womanhood in the West: a spinster determined to marry or the "lucky" married women who've gone crazy. It’s not quite as stigmatic as Grace Kelly vs. Katy Jurado in High Noon, but these portraits are too simplistic and clichéd to be insightful or compelling. And you can only have so many men criticize your female lead before a film starts feeling misogynistic.
As for Briggs, he’s meant to be an unpleasant fellow, or at least that’s what everyone around him keeps saying (See: Mary’s plainness), but on a scale of Jones’ orneriness, Briggs is a mere 7. For context Jones at The Homesman press conference was like a 5 infinitely less curmudgeonly than the Lincoln's awards season apex.
To be horribly reductive, Jones as Briggs is more Grumpy Cat than Rooster Cogburn and I'm a fan; he's my favorite Space Cowboy, yes even over Eastwood!
The three supporting actresses (Gummer, Otto, Richter) aren’t given much screen time to illustrate their fall into madness or much to do with said madness, once they're on the road. After the struggles to get the three actually into the paddy wagon-stagecoach (including one being bound and nearly gagged), the film brushes over most (if any) mid-journey struggles other than an unfunny comic relief blip involving Jones helping and an "outdoor facility." Madness is an incredibly ripe topic, especially when you throw in the close quarters of a roadtrip, but Jones apparently liked the “unpleasant man doesn’t beat or rape women, so he’s a sort of male feminist prototype!” angle more.
Co-written, directed and produced by Tommy Lee Jones, the film stomps forward under a misguided banner of “feminist retelling,” wanting both to showcase female subjugation as an evil but also still give the reins over to the struggles of man. It also pointedly assumes that the audience is not too familiar with the American pioneer days, playing off of that assumption for a few of the meant-to-be-shocking reveals, but anyone with basic knowledge of The Oregon Trail should be up to speed (death, cold, death, dangerous natives, death). For international audiences, it will be a new perspective from the West of John Wayne and bigger blockbusters (co-producer Luke Besson dubbed it “exotic”), but that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
The Homesman has very fascinating pieces, and they could have come together to make a new genre-subverting Western in the footsteps of Jarmusch’s Dead Man or the Coens’ True Grit. But instead, it's a jumbled off-putting panorama of hysterical women, “nice guy” misogyny and numerous 'well, that escalated quickly' situations. In the hopes of not ending on a completely negative note, watch out for exquisite Meryl Streep cameo, the trademark perversity of James Spader, a chilling Tim Blake Nelson, stunning landcapse photography, and authentic tunes. And Tommy Lee Jones doing a jig!