An untrustworthy man and a pioneering spinster school teacher team up to transport three women across the Western plains, from Nebraska to Iowa.


A faux-feminist western

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: Actor-director Tommy Lee Jones won an acting award at Cannes for his last directorial effort, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. He returns to the Cannes Competition lineup with The Homesman, an ambitious, epic, headscratcher of a western, that for the first two-thirds of it at least, frames its redemptive tale around the marginalisation of the Wild West’s womenfolk — women like Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a God-fearing spinster as dependable as her name implies.

A former schoolteacher, Mary Bee is one of the hordes of immigrants and New Yorkers who went West, and got as far as a fledgling town in Nebraska. She's a woman of means, and is doing better than most of her townsfolk, maintaining a farm with a house that boasts wooden floorboards (off which she is forever sweeping away the dust blown in by the gales outside).

The small settlement is bereft of any semblance of civilisation so Mary Bee latches onto things that remind her of home; she plays pretend notes on a fold-out piano mat, and excitedly plans to have the real thing shipped in. “If I don’t hear real music soon I shall surely die,” she laments.

Anxious to marry, she seizes on male acquaintances, launching too-quickly into a well-rehearsed engagement pitch. (A cooler head might caution her to ‘read the room’ before uttering, “This is a fine cheese, Bob. So why not marry?”). Mary Bee’s desperation is roundly mocked and cruelly rejected (twice that we know of, but likely more besides), and the compounding humiliation cuts deep.

It doesn’t bode well for the rest of the settlers that the town’s most dependable person – male or female – is being driven to distraction by unrelenting whirring of the wind. Elsewhere, a spate of extreme personal tragedies start affecting her neighbours, and underscoring the fact that this desolate place can quite literally do your head in.

A town meeting is called to address a community mental health crisis, described euphemistically by the preacher (John Lithgow) as “some trouble amongst the women”. A trio of females have succumbed to their darker instincts, driven mad by alienation, bad marriages, and the stockpiling corpses of their sick babies. It's a bad look for a town looking to attract new settlers, and with no facilities for respite care, the decision is taken to ship the patients back East to Iowa. Mary Bee volunteers to be the compassionate chauffeur, after hearing the men cite a litany of excuses why they can't take on the job.

Even a stalwart like Mary Bee knows the open plains pose a danger to a convoy of ‘crazy’ women, so she enlists a ‘Homesman’ to do the security detail on the five-week interstate trek. Director Jones nabs the title role for himself, as the gruff and selfish claim-jumper George Briggs.

"A late-film plot point takes the film into a different direction and the heretofore story of marginalised women is itself marginalised."

The road trip that ensues is episodic, with bouts of danger, tragedy and despair along the way. Swank and Jones even dabble with the conventions of the buddy comedy, to varying effect. Swank is reliably stoic as fiesty-yet-vulnerable Mary Bee, and Jones is well within his comfort zone, playing the grouchy old coot.

The technical credits are all-around excellent – not least the cinematography and touching score. As the afflicted women, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter collectively, shriek, stare vacantly and clutch at dolls, and theirs are perfectly serviceable movie manifestations of 'madness'. There’s also a blink-and -you’ll-miss-it cameo from Gummer’s mum, Meryl Streep, playing a goodly preacher’s wife awaiting delivery of the unpredictable human cargo. In one lavish set piece James Spader seems helicoptered in from Central Casting, adopting an Irish brogue leaning back on his heels and thumbing his waistcoat as a sneering property developer.

The Homesman aspires to add a gender balance to the typically macho myth of the American West, but to call it a 'feminist western', as many have, is to give it far too much credit. It might (just) pass the Bechdel Test, but The Homesman’s gender politics are a little skewy.  A late-film plot point takes things into an entirely different direction and the heretofore story of marginalised women is itself marginalised. The Mary Bee narrative falls into George’s slipstream, and she simply becomes a change agent for his redemption. It's a great shame that, in the end, as high-minded as it aims to be, The Homesman essentially echoes the long, fateful journey of its own troubled female protagonists and only superficially addresses a deeper issue.


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2 hours 2 min
In Cinemas 12 March 2015,