Monday, November 17, 2014

The Homesman

"The Homesman" is as much a head-scratcher as its title, a two-hour exercise in the pointless prolongation of miserablist material.

Hilary Swank stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a self-sufficient Nebraska frontierswoman with her own farm. Three women have gone mad - one lost three children to diphtheria, another is beaten and raped by her own husband, the third suddenly stops speaking - and, seeing that none of the men in town will step up, Mary Bee volunteers to transport them to Iowa, where her reverend (John Lithgow) has made arrangements with a vicar's wife (Meryl Streep), who will see that they get to the East Coast. She rescues George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed), a scuzzy claim jumper hanged and left for dead for squatting, holding him to his promise to help her and promising him three hundred dollars upon their arrival. 

The bulk of the picture tracks the traveling party across the prairie. They don't encounter many of the perils you might associate with such a journey, just a five-man Indian tribe whom Briggs buys off with a horse. Time with the madwomen is not well spent. The mute stares off into the distance, while another keeps intoning "God will strike you down!" and the third will bite you as soon as look at you. When they finally get to Streep (who must have lost some bet on the set of "Hope Springs"), she says she's not sure she's ready to meet them. Sister, you don't know the half of it! Jones replies, "Before you meet them, let me tell you a little about them." I asked my friend, "What is this, 'The Dating Game'?"

The most interesting element in the movie is the "town" of Fairfield through which they pass, which consists solely of a (for the time) luxurious-looking hotel and a number of stakes dug into the ground and painted with street names. (Can you imagine Waze in the Old West?) The proprietor (James Spader) hopes to persuade some fat cats to invest in the would-be town, and refuses to put up or feed Briggs' group, a choice Briggs avenges not once but twice in scenes of bizarrely disproportionate vindictiveness.

Jones clearly cashed in a lot of chits to make "The Homesman," which looks cheap, with sets straight off the studio lot. Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal wrote that he'd finally found his least favorite Jones performance. I disagree (I liked his puffed-up turn in "Lincoln" even less), but it is pretty bad. Another critic called this "Swank's best performance since 'Million Dollar Baby,'" which made us ask whether it was also her only performance since "Million Dollar Baby." (Not quite.) There's no way into any of the women in the movie (including another WTF cameo by Hailee Steinfeld at the end), and Jones treats Swank especially badly, having her commit a surprise act wholly out of keeping with her character, primarily so he can intone a few closing valedictories.

"The Homesman" ended - abruptly, and oddly. Silence fell over the theater and, two seconds later, the mad dash for the exits began.

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