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Roadside Attractions // R // November 14, 2014
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Fandango]
Much like any other genre in existence, the western has its own stereotypical structure that audiences have come to predict. Whether one is a fan of classical westerns or more modern adaptations, they generally play by many of the same rules with a lot of similar motifs. Tommy Lee Jones' adaptation of the novel bends expectations in The Homesman in numerous ways. There is plenty of intriguing material to explore here, but very little of it is capitalized upon. Rather, we're left with a relatively disappointing western picture that simply doesn't fill the void in the way that followers of the genre are searching for. Looking for the next True Grit? Sorry to say that this isn't it, although it isn't without its redeeming qualities.
Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is an unmarried farmer, who is desperate for companionship. However, she's able to manage just fine on her own. Mary is known for her domineering personality, which pushes many possible bachelors away. She finds herself tasked with escorting three insane women from Nebraska to Iowa, which is viewed to be an incredibly dangerous journey by all. Mary recruits George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) to assist her on an adventure that will change the women's lives forever.
The first act of The Homesman does a wonderful job setting up a flawed character with a complex set of emotions. While she's certainly desperate for companionship, it doesn't hinder her ability to fulfill her responsibilities on the farm and to her community. Mary is one tough individual who manages to prove that women can successfully accomplish the same tasks that are often labeled as being roles for men. Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, and Wesley A. Oliver's screenplay truly delivers on an empowering female role, which is an interesting twist that more recent westerns are starting to incorporate. As she continues to prepare for this journey, we witness her preparation, as well as some of her doubts. Mary's ability to lead the adventure with Briggs makes for some truly intriguing scenes, even though both characters experience some inconsistent developments that feel inauthentic.
The Homesman truly manages to immerse us in this personal journey that Mary embarks upon. However, it is ultimately placed on the back burner, and soon enough, it's dropped altogether. Nothing is more disappointing than being introduced to such a powerful character, only for them to be handled as an unimportant plot element. Meanwhile, Briggs is utilized as comedic relief, which feels entirely out of place. He often contributes to the feature's inconsistent tone, as it inappropriately blurs the line between insanely serious drama and ridiculous humor. This is made only worse by the jarring flashbacks that continue to remind us how poorly women are treated in this world by their horrific husbands. It all begins to feel a bit repetitive. The Homesman then tries to lighten the mood with Briggs' ridiculous humor, which truly pulls us out of the cinematic experience of it all. The further that we get into the running time, the more we're confused by its intentions.
Even if the tone changes are chaotic, the journey itself truly manages to feel like the epic adventure that it is. There are countless dangers that could emerge at any point, as they must protect these three women from both outside factors, as well as each other. As the weather begins to change, Mary and Briggs endure some harsh conditions, as they must work together if they hope to make it to Iowa alive. However, the question that continues to loom over us is, what will become of them after this task is completed? Will they return back to Nebraska, remain in Iowa, or travel elsewhere? Fortunately, the path in which the picture travels isn't entirely predictable. While the character relationships are, we remain intrigued by what will happen at the conclusion of the journey. Once we do reach the final act, we're left with a disappointing conclusion. Just when we think that the credits are going to start rolling, it keeps going. I haven't read the original novel myself, although the plot beats through the final act don't translate well onto film.
With Tommy Lee Jones in the writing, directing, and acting roles, it should come as no surprise that the project attracted a large cast. Hilary Swank is outstanding as Mary Bee Cuddy. She's entirely convincing, as our fascination continues to develop within this character. Tommy Lee Jones improves in the role of George Briggs as the film goes on. A lot of his "comedic" delivery falls flat, although he becomes absolutely believable through the second half of the running time. The feature also contains small roles from the likes of John Lithgow, James Spader, Hailee Seinfeld, Meryl Streep, Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, and more. Unfortunately, most of the supporting cast members feel underutilized, although Jones and Swank are one of the main highlights of the picture.
Given that The Homesman is a western, it requires a certain environment, and Jones absolutely hits the nail on the head in the director's seat. While the film contains some of the visual cues that audiences have come to expect, he also offers some truly fascinating use of framing in order to deliver a more tense adventure. The costumes and makeup are entirely fitting, as they aid in transporting us to this world. This especially holds true regarding the three insane women, who are made almost unrecognizable, as something as simple as the pattern of cuts and bruises tells a story of what they have endured. A specific color palette is used in the cinematography in order to further immerse the audience, and it works perfectly.
When it comes to the technical aspects of the visual style and the performances, Tommy Lee Jones has successfully delivered this western. The first act is fascinating, as Mary is an intriguingly complex character that commands both our attention and our emotions, which is only elevated by Hilary Swank's tremendous portrayal. Unfortunately, the plot loses its path somewhere along the way, as its clashing tones and confusing direction of character development hinder the feature's potential. This isn't a western that will fill the void in the same way that True Grit did, but it provides some new elements to the genre that make this worth a rental. The Homesman isn't exactly the feminist answer to westerns, but it has its occasional moments of genius. Rent it.