The Homesman and his freakish cargo.
Runtime 2 hours 2 minutes
Released United States 2014
Country France and United States
Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Screen play Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver
Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto
Music by Marco Beltrami
Cast Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, John Lithgow, Meryl Streep.
**Spoiler – a twist and turn is revealed**
‘This is the untold story of the west,’ of a ‘freakish cargo’ of women made mad by the hardships of the Frontier transported across a harsh landscape in a wagon driven by a Saint (Mary Bee Cuddy played by Hilary Swank) and a Sinner (Georg Briggs played by Tommy Lee Jones). They travel to ‘civilisation’ across a river and into the loving bosom of the Church (Altha Carter played by Meryl Streep.) Along the way they pass through wind, snow, and by dangerous men, pioneer graves, Native burial grounds, Irish developers, wild injuns: cinematic myths and metaphors of the frontier.
In the opening scenes we meet Mary Bee Cuddy plowing the fields with her two ‘girls.’ Living ‘uncommonly alone’ she has a claim and although seemingly self sufficient and capable, being a female character she is soon depicted as a lonely spinster. It takes a while to catch on to the incongruity (a word used a few times in the ladies bathroom after the film) that Hilary Swank was being rejected by the kinda funny looking neighbor Griffith on account of being ‘plain as a tin pail and too bossy.’ This would be ironic if Cuddy got a chance to transcend these comments in the narrative. She doesn’t.
Early on the townsfolk in ‘The Homesman’ gather together in their tiny church where three husbands want to divest themselves of their crazy wives: who will be man enough to transport them? A montage of hardships in ‘The Territories’ — sex that looks like abuse, dead stock, mud brick humpies, a wailing baby thrown into the out house — paints a grim picture. Mary Bee Cuddy draws the straw to drive the wagon; she’s scared but capable. But soon she (literally) hands the reins over to a gruff character George Griggs, whose life she saves on the proviso that he assists her. Griggs soon becomes the boss of the wagon, and the narrative.
The three crazies* – Grace Gummer (the tattooed woman from ‘American Horror Story – Freak show’) Danish actress Sonja Richter, and Australian Miranda Otto run the gamut of crazy lady clichés from A – B. The twitches, ticks and puppet walks made them look like zombies from the TV show ‘Walking Dead.’
Around the half way mark Cuddy stays behind at the remotest, windiest spot they have passed through, to clean up a child’s grave, and Briggs goes ahead with the wagon of women. Cuddy becomes lost and spends days wondering the vast, sparse landscape. She must have lost her mind, as when she is reunited with the group she proposes to Briggs, who promptly rejects her, same reason ‘plain as a tin pail and bossy.’ So, Cuddy hangs herself.
In the end having delivered his cargo to the church, Briggs wanders the town spending Cuddy’s money equally on virtue and vice while carrying around a heavy wooden tombstone. He is an outsider here on the right side of the river: a card game won’t even take his ‘wildcat’ money from the Territories. So he travels back across the river on a pontoon and as Cuddy’s headstone slides from the deck into the river Briggs dances a jig and fires his guns.
Describing ‘The Homesman’ as an untold story implies a historical basis – this must have been what it was like in the 1850s? Is being critical of setting up a strong female character only to make her ugly, bossy, hand over her power and then kill herself (not to mention the three crazy ladies) projecting a 21st century feminism onto a 1850s story? Or projecting 1960s feminism onto a 21st century film? Meryl Streep who plays the Ministers wife recently launched a scriptwriters program for women over 40. Here’s hoping that that they write films where the female characters hold onto the reigns.
*I write crazies and not mentally ill or suffering post partum depression because they play like caricatures.
See the links below to some stories about pioneering women and links relating to the film:
Ida B. Wells – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ida_B._Wells
Laura Bullion from Knickerbocker, Texas – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Bullion
Truganini – a survivor http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truganini
Alice Manfield – a mountain guide and photographer who designer her own trousers http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Manfield
An excerpt from the novel ‘The Homesman’: http://www.glendonswarthout.com/novels/homesman_excerpt.htm
FYI – Stanley Kramer adapted another Glendon Swarthout novel, ‘Bless the Beasts and Children’
Film Comment ‘The Homesman’ By Michael Sragow on November 13, 2014 http://www.filmcomment.com/entry/deep-focus-the-homesman
The Homesman press package http://www.festival-cannes.com/assets/Image/Direct/53e141a24e2033b350e0415546cc3f0c.pdf