Given that the major studios decided to take a break this weekend by failing to offer up one new nationwide release, I had to make a choice: review a film I’d already seen, go check out a major release I had yet to see (and I was not about to waste my money on Dumb and Dumber To) or check out an independent film I probably wouldn’t have seen had it not been for the lack of offerings. (The film I was going to review this week, The Pyramid, only opened in a little over 500 theaters and didn’t make the cut at my local cineplexes). So I decided on the latter, choosing to see Tommy Lee Jones’s directorial debut, The Homesman, a slice-of-life western that piqued my interest mainly because of the stellar cast Jones was able to put together. Unfortunately, even the best cast can’t rise above a mediocre story, no matter how many Oscars they may have won (or have been nominated for).
Jones casts himself as the title character, George Briggs, a tired, lonely drifter who… wait. Is this story about him, or is it about Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a lonely frontierswoman living in the Nebraska territory who’s desperate to find a husband and bear many a child? I only ask because I’m not quite sure Jones (who’s also credited as a writer, alongside Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout) even knows, as the film’s point of view jumps characters at about the start of the third act due to an event that is set up to be extremely tragic, but comes off as confusing and unsure of itself — which sums up the entire tone of the film itself.
I’m all for an actor or writer or cinematographer stepping out of their comfort zone to try their hand at the director’s chair, but when they lack confidence in what they’re doing, that timidness shows on screen. I assume Jones wanted to capture the serenity, unpredictability and tortuously lonely aspects of living on the frontier in this undisclosed time frame, but those things alone don’t present a strong enough adversary for Cuddy and Briggs to overcome. Every “chapter” that makes up Cuddy and Briggs’s journey are given very little time to develop, thus create a sort of blocked narrative that doesn’t allow for any emotional, spiritual or psychological changes in any of the characters. In fact, whenever a conflict arises, it feels overly manufactured in how quickly it comes and goes without much tension at all.
One specific scene that highlights this idea is when a band of Indians begin to stalk Cuddy and Briggs, who heightens the dangers by contiuously going over what should happen if things go badly and the Indians decide to raid their wagon. But then, before the Indians even approach them, Briggs takes them a horse with which they start to chase it like a baby being distracted by a new colorful toy. Threat resolved. Compile enough of these simulated “dangers” without a clear, defined antagonist and the threat of anything happening to these characters creates a simplicity to the film that lulls the momentum into a state of banality.
It isn’t like Jones didn’t have plenty of opportunity to heighten the conflict in the film and use it to strengthen the bond between Cuddy and Briggs, two lost souls seeking some type of solace or companionship. But because Jones can’t really commit to anything deeper than a few quips and minor struggles, there is hardly any chemistry between Jones and Swank that warrants any hope for a budding friendship (or more) or justifies any of their actions. From the moment Cuddy cuts Briggs from a noose after being left for dead for squatting in one of the frontiersman’s homes, their relationship bounces all over the place, making any conflict that may help them grow and change as empty as a hot air balloon.
But their characters are no more empty than that of the three women who are basically used as nothing more than a plot device. Pioneer life has taken its toll on these ladies for different reasons — Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) lost three children in three days due to dysentery; Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) loses hope when all of their livestock fall dead; and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) is sexually abused and loses her mother — causing each one to effectively go insane. Unable to take care of them any longer, their husbands (Jesse Plemons, William Fichtner and David Dencik, respectively) request the church send them back to their homes on the east coast. None of them are willing to take the six week journey, though, which leads to Cuddy taking on the arduous task herself.
These circumstances should have been extremely tragic, however, due in part to the editing of the film, Jones fails to give this aspect of the film any gravitas. We’re introduced to these girls through very quick snapshots of what happened to them with no reason to know who they are or what’s going on, and then tacks on a few random flashbacks throughout the rest of the film to try and give more depth to these wordless characters. But at no time do their circumstances add any reason to build a stronger relationship between Cuddy and Briggs as it’s meant to do. Had Jones waited to show why these women went insane until we got to know them better, he may have been able to connect them to Cuddy and Briggs in a much more substantial and compelling way. Instead the impact of the tragedy is wasted, as is the parade of celebrity that plagues the movie.
The opening credits list a stellar lineup of stars that fails to have any impact as they come and go, adding nothing much to the film but their notoriety. John Lithgow plays Reverend Alfred Dowd, the bridge for the transfer to Altha Carter (Meryl Streep), the wife of a reverend in Iowa who will act as caretaker for the women until they are able to find their families, and Hailee Steinfeld pops in as a housekeeper, there simply because she resembles Cuddy. Their appearances are more stunt casting than fully realized characters, leading to performances that feel bored and hollow. The only actor who truly lavishes in his small, unimportant role as a elitist developer is James Spader, who, let’s be honest, never misses a chance to revel in his malevolence. He was a bright light in a barren world where nothing is earned and nothing is gained, giving us a series of events with no point but to represent a snapshot of frontier life that remains as placid as any other mundane story.
My Grade: C
Next week, new movies include Top Five and Exodus: Gods and Kings. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.