Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Homesman [2014]

MPAA (R) ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B-)  Fr. Dennis (3 place)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (S. O'Malley) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review  

The Homesman [2014] (directed and screenplay cowritten by Tommy Lee Jones along with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout [IMDb]) is something of a subversive / "revisionist" or perhaps "corrective" Western.  (Since there have been _so many_ Westerns made over the years, film-makers (and actors / actresses) do, with due fairness to their crafts, look for fresh approaches to the genre).

So the approach taken in this story was to take a look at the "Old West" from the perspective of the women that went out West -- with their parents, with their husbands, and even with fiances the they barely knew.  Approached from this angle, "the Frontier" wasn't exactly an awesome place to go.

Indeed, the story presented in this film reminds me of the stories recounted to me by our church secretary in a parish that we used to have in Milwaukie, OR (just outside of Portland) where I had served my diaconate.  Having a couple of young daughters, she had gotten involved in the various commemorations of a fairly big anniversary of the Oregon Trail.  One of the insights that she shared from the experience was that _pregnancy_ was one of the main realities for the wives who traversed the Trail with their husbands and families back in the 1840s: Either they were already pregnant when they started the journey or became pregnant during it.  In any case, however, the challenge for people today trying to appreciate the hardships of making the then almost 6 month journey was to imagine doing it, pregnant, sitting in (or when things got really bad, laying in) a wagon that was going albeit slowly but nevertheless up-and-down-and-all-around as it was traversing a well-worn and not particularly well-maintained dirt path that was the Oregon Trail -- from Independence, Missouri all the way to Willamette Valley in Oregon.

The current film set in the rather endless short-grass prairie of Nebraska is largely about three young wives who went crazy out there in the middle of the endless "nowhere" (seriously some of the very evocative and (to make the point) necessarily _depressing_ panoramic shots in the film make the Nebraska of the mid-1800s look like the "sand planet" where "Luke" would have "grown-up" in the first Star Wars [1977] movie).  A fourth woman, Mary Bee Cuddy (played with Oscar Nomination worthiness by Hillary Swank) is tasked by her local Pastor (played by John Lithgow) to take the women back to Iowa where another Pastor friend and his wife would take care of them and perhaps send them back to their original families.  Again, this is not exactly the "American frontier story" that we're generally acquainted with...

Since Mary Bee Cuddy, tough, competent as the rest, perhaps _more competent_ than most of the local men (several of whose wives she was being tasked to "take home to their original families") was nevertheless "a woman" ... she's encouraged to find a man, really _any man_ to serve as a "homesman" (the title of the story) to "help her" with this sad and difficult task.  The ONLY man that she finds who could help her was a small-time drunk / scoundrel, arguably a "sorry excuse for a man" (played in the film, certainly with some delight by the director Tommy Lee Jones himself).

So then, there's the story's set up:  The honest and tough, perhaps tragically "too tough" for her own good Mary Bee Cuddy, sets off with three crazy women in tow and a not altogether sane male drifter who's supposed to "help her" in her task to bring the said "crazy women" back home somewhere "back East" Iowa-way.  Much, often quite sad / sometimes quite poignant ensues ...

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