Take a Drink: for damn goofiness
Take a Drink: whenever Swank is, perhaps overly, practical
Take a Drink: whenever Jones mangles some vocabulary
Take a Drink: whenever he finally does something good
Do a Shot: to soften horrendous gender politics and brutal sex scenes
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Back in 2005, Tommy Lee Jones made one of the most assured, insightful directorial debuts by an actor that I’ve seen. The film managed to deftly examine Western masculinity, immigration, guilt and atonement, and the human condition at large in a way that reminded me of the best adaptations of Cormac McCarthy’s work.
i.e., the ones James Franco has stayed away from
It’s taken him nine years, but with The Homesman he returns as director and co-star to a tale that covers some of the same territory. Hilary Swank is an independent frontierswoman who half volunteers to escort three women from her community driven insane by the harsh living conditions back East. She recruits an old shit-kicker who she saves from hanging to aid them on their perilous journey.
This film took a lot of chewing over, and the more I thought about it, the more it rose in my estimation. What James seems to be after in his adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s well-regarded novel is an unvarnished, unromantic look at the Old West, and in particular at a woman’s experience in that time and place- a perspective too often pushed to the margins of Westerns.
Like The Oregon Trail– all a woman gets to do is die of dysentery
The cast of this film is spectacular, with John Lithgow, Hailee Steinfeld, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and my pick to pick up Wilford Brimley’s so gruff and walrusy you just want to hug ’em mantle, Barry Corbin, all making an impression. Grace Gummer, Mirando Otto, and Sanja Richter give harrowing, chilling, and pitiable performances as the three insane women as well, but in the end this is a two-hander between Jones and Swank.
Jones plays his cantankerous old man persona primarily for laughs here, at least at first, and he really delivers them. He’s maybe a bit dumb, certainly undignified, and seemingly without compensation, but there’s a deeper-thinking, more sympathetic man under that rough exterior that begins to emerge. Swank, though, is the heart of the film, for its good and eventual ill. She’s an almost comically practical, highly competent woman, independent at a time when that makes you an outcast, not a plucky heroine. She’s unemotional on the surface, but pain and loneliness roils beneath the surface, which Swank expresses in a solitary look, or a small tenderness. It’s a heartbreaking performance, but only in retrospect, which just intensifies the feeling.
Technically, it’s as well-made a film as you can ask for. Rodrigo Prieto lenses the wide expanses and dark rivers of the Great Plains with aplomb, and frames the more striking sequences, like a burning building lighting up the night, for maximum impact. Marco Beltrami’s score is also excellent, incorporating and manipulating traditional tunes to deliver a spare, bleak mood as sharp and cold as the prairie wind.
This movie begins in May, btw.
Fuck if I haven’t talked myself into two beers on this one. Its unnatural rhythms and tonal ambiguities practically demand further analysis, and the more you think about the film, the richer it feels. In particular, there is a shocking second act twist, which, particularly after the scene that precedes it, feels like an utter betrayal of the movie so far leading up to it, but upon further reflection deepens it, and propels the more diffuse, darker McCarthy-esque third act.
That’s not what this second beer is for, though, even if it sure as hell feels like it deserves one at the time. Rather, I have to call out the uneven blend of broad comedy and darkest drama, which leaves you utterly unprepared for the big twist (which may be the point). It’s still unspeakably odd, like if No Country for Old Men wedged in a comic relief character.
George Lopez’s agent was really after that one, dammit!
Like another recent Cormac McCarthy-inflected Western with a weird balance of tones, The Counselor, The Homesman feels ripe for an almost immediate critical reappraisal. It’s a beguiling mix of comic and tragic absurdity, and a portrait of the unvarnished, horrible experience of women in the Old West.