Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Fish With a Bicycle

Hilary Swank gits r done in The Homesman.

««1/2 The Homesman. Written by Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley A. Oliver, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones. At selected theaters.

In a political landscape dominated by arguments subtle enough to fit on bumper stickers, one of the oldest is "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." First coined by Australian writer-activist Irina Dunn, it's a classic and maybe the most silly, because five million years of evolution attest to the fact that, yes, most women do need men.
          The question haunts Tommy Lee Jones' new anti-Western, The Homesman. I say "anti-Western" because the movie focuses not on the conquest of the frontier, but a retreat from it. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a "fish without a bicycle" type—an intelligent, resourceful woman perfectly up to busting the sod on her Nebraska farm and setting a fine dinner table when she aims to. Unmarried but seeking, she approaches men not as a romantic suppliant, but as an equal with a business proposition. So formidable is Miss Mary Bee that she volunteers for a task none of the men in her town will touch: to escort three deranged frontier wives (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) through hundreds of miles of lawless territory to Iowa, where they will find rest and refuge from their clueless husbands. On the way, she rescues claim jumper George Briggs (Jones) from the end of a lynch-rope, but at a price of helping her accomplish her errand of mercy.
          Novelist and "Cowboy Hall of Fame" member Glendon Swarthout (The Shootist, Where the Boys Are) crafted an interesting premise when he wrote the book in the 1980's.  The movie rights were owned for years by Paul Newman, who never was able to get the project made. The Homesman then became a passion project for Jones, who directed this version himself.
          There's no question that the film has all of the elements it needed to succeed. Foremost is Hilary Swank, who has made a career of playing women struggling against the petty limitations of gender. No less impressive here as she was in Boys Don't Cry or Million Dollar Baby, she gives Mary Bee a dignity that reads as almost Lincolnesque, but with a core of vulnerability that makes her strength all the more appealing. She makes an interesting match with Jones' gristled anti-hero, who makes a career of traversing his own kinds of boundaries. They're different enough—and share enough—to be good dance partners.
          Jones has shot his film sparely, as if trying to distill some kind of classically tragic essence. In this context, the three damaged women they escort become a kind of mute chorus, responding to what they see in the only rational fashion insanity deserves.
          So why isn't The Homesman better? Perhaps more than any other recent film I can think of, it goes off the rails in one fell swoop, with a turn in the plot that shouldn't be spoiled here. Suffice it to say that Swank's character needs men after all. She departs the story in a sudden fashion that is neither sufficiently prepared for, nor adequately explained. Swarthout might have done so in the book (which I haven't read), which Jones may have lived with long enough to believe was clear enough. But on the screen, it isn't—at least without a goodly amount of post hoc rationalization.
          It's a shame. Though the Western is often thought of as a spent genre, it is a quintessentially American one, big enough to contain themes that are still relevant. Those gunslingers and cowboys were the original superheroes, the Indians the original "others" who turn out not to be so alien. (Star Trek, incidentally, was originally sold as a "space Western"). The story of women in the West is a vast, largely unexplored universe. Jones may have finished this journey, but he missed an opportunity by leaving its soul behind.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

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