Monday, December 8, 2014

Movie Review: "The Homesman" (2014)

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Movie"The Homesman"
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a middle-aged unmarried woman and land owner in Nebraska who takes care of herself as best she can. When three women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer and Sonja Richter) in their small pioneer town have been driven crazy, Mary volunteers to see them to Iowa since she is able-bodied and has no familial ties. Before leaving on their journey, Mary finds a degenerate claim jumper strung up to a tree sitting on a horse with a noose around his neck. He begs her to free him, and she agrees to do as as long as he will do anything she says. The man, George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), promised Mary he would help her, but when she informs him of what he is to do, it was a little more than he bargained for.

With a strong major cast featuring the likes of Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones (also the film's writer and director) and an expansive supporting one including Miranda Otto, Meryl Streep and her daughter Grace Gummer, James Spader, William Fitchner, John Lithgow, and Barry Corbin, one would expect "The Homesman" to be another great film in a long line of movies featuring ensemble casts such as this.
Well, it's not.
Not even close.

Based on the book of the same name, this film is simply another in the still ever-growing list of mediocre films made in 2014. Critics will praise it for its "brilliant acting," we're sure, but we didn't think there was really anything brilliant about the acting or the movie in general. Let us set the background a bit more. Tommy Lee Jones plays George Briggs, a man who isn't afraid to steal the shirt off your back and never settles in one place for too long. He's a coward and a swindler, so when he is tied by his neck to a tree to be hanged for theft, there would have been no loss if he had perished. Instead, he is saved by Mary Bee Cuddy, played by Hilary Swank, a godly yet unmarried 31-year-old spinster who has taken it upon herself to see that 3 women who have "gone crazy" make it across the Missouri river to a church where they are to be cared for by a preacher. In exchange for saving his life, Cuddy makes Briggs promise to help her with her task and he agrees to travel across the gorgeous plains with her. Hallelujah.

The beginning of the film, I think, began pretty strong. Mary Bee Cuddy is the woman I would have wanted to be during the time she lived. I mean, it was clearly one of the harshest times in the States, where real physical manual labor was required to simply survive. Dust storms were rampant, crops, agriculture, and animals died with no warning, etc. Mary Bee Cuddy was a woman who did all her own cooking, farming, cleaning, etc, with no man to tell her to get back into the kitchen, and it almost seems as if not only the writer of the book but Jones and company as well, wanted to make Cuddy seem like her own self-sufficient woman, dare I say even a little feminist? She even mentions it at one point in the scene at church. This character speaks to our inner feminist, so we got excited, but not for too long.

After this initial establishment, the next hour and a half is spent traveling across the plains. There were only two real incidents that could have posed a problem for the wagon party on the trail, and it seemed as if Jones wanted these incidents to be more intense than they actually turned out to be on screen. In fact, to us, they were devoid of any real tension for the most part. Beyond this, the in-fighting between Swank and Jones makes up the crux of the trip, and since one of them is a saint and the other is a sinner, you can imagine that they don't get along too well. Plus, you know, the crazy ladies in the back of the wagon don't help the situation any. While Swank and Jones do have great chemistry together on screen, the material they have to work with just sort of fits into the typecast they have been used to forever. When you think about it, Hilary Swank cherry picks her roles so that the only thing in common with them is that they are all depressing as hell. Tommy Lee Jones always plays a fast-talking, crotchety Southerner with a lot of sass and a heaping side dish of wit. He pretty much plays himself in every role. Together, they and their band of crazy-but-not-really-that-compelling-crazies make the trek from Nebraska to Iowa, only to have the entire movie switch gears three-fourths of the way through the movie. For a fighter as strong as Mary Bee Cuddy seemed initially, when push came to shove, she was obviously just a desperate, deeply depressed character and that's really the way the entire movie is at its core. We understand that what happened to each of the "crazy" women sucks, but we think Tommy Lee Jones failed to connect them and their sadness to the audience. We visually see their plight, but there's not enough overall background beyond a few seconds per woman to make us engaged in their struggles or care about their depression, or concerned for their safety. BigJ doesn't like depressing movies. He thinks there should be a distinction between depressing, where terrible things happen to the film's characters and leave you feeling empty inside, and sad, where bad stuff happens to the film's characters but there is some kind of catharsis in the end. To this I say, "Requiem for a Dream," but that's for another day.

Overall, though the cinematography is very pretty and well-shot, and the film overall has decent enough acting throughout, "The Homesman" fails to make us feel anything other than a shitty void at the end of it. This film has "Oscar bait" written all over it as far as several categories go, but its entertainment factor is next to nothing. Even though the main protagonist could very well have been a feminist by today's standards and we enjoyed that aspect, the author of the book, and subsequently the filmmakers, do a complete 180 in the middle of the story and this defeats its whole purpose.

My Rating: 5/10
BigJ's Rating: 5/10
IMDB's Rating: 6.6/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 79%
Do we recommend this movie: Meh.
One year ago, we were watching: "Delivery Man"

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