The Homesman (2014)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

The premise of this film caught my interest. Turns out, I should have read the reviews first. A few people found this a "tough as nails, gritty, realistic western" but the majority concluded it's a slow-moving, ultra-depressing film. Worse, I find it anti-feminist, for a film I expected based on the pitch to have a strong female lead.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) has everything a woman on the frontier could wish for: a thriving farm, good mules, and money in the bank. She can even afford to eat canned peaches. Except a husband. So she invites the neighbor over, feeds him a fine peach pie, and pops the question: why not get married? It makes sense, after all. Join their farms, split the work load, have children. He sneers at the idea, tells her she's no looker, and if he wants a wife, he'll send back east for one.

Turns out, Mary Bee has handled the extremes of the Nebraska wilds well, all things considered. Three local women have gone "plum crazy" after losing their parents, kids, and cattle. Someone needs to take them back east to find them help. When the men balk at doing it, Mary Bee volunteers. But once she gets a gander at the wagon they'll have to travel several hundred miles in across open territory in the dead of winter, fear strikes her heart. Lucky for her, she comes across a "claim jumper," George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) with a noose around his neck. She trades him his life for his service on the trail.

This movie is long. And slow. And depressing. And contains a lot of scenes that, frankly, made me cringe, because something about them (maybe it was the creep factor of the sex scenes with a mentally absent woman? and the truly heinous sex scene between the leads?) just did not set well with me. And it takes a turn halfway through that shocked me, and turned the film into something different than I expected. It started out well enough, then dragged, then frustrated me, and ended on a weird, unsettled note. I cannot express my annoyance without spoilers, so I'll skim the surface: the only women here are insane, going insane, or have given up on life without a man. The implication is that women are fragile and helpless (without a man) and it's best to leave them at home, where they belong. Since there are no other women present in the entire story (except at the very end) to counter-act this bias, the chauvinism seems apparent.

Mary Bee let me down. Some might call her arc powerful or say wanting and needing a man is permissible as a feminist, and I agree with that, but I call what this story does to her pathetic. She cannot live without a man. Even her dilemma of being unable to find a man to marry her is unreasonable given the period; a hard-working woman with guts, and brains, who can cook a mean peach pie and comes with a claim? She'd be married in five minutes, bossy or not. The costumes are decent, but there's not much music, and the pacing is strangely off. The acting is terrific, particularly from Jones (who also directed the picture). To me, it felt like a missed opportunity -- it is, apparently, almost exactly like the novel that inspired it, but I cannot help thinking both tales might have gone in stronger directions with more present characters. The insane women are background noise and despite flashbacks to their hardships, I never felt much for any of them.

I hated it. But a lot of other people loved it, and praised its "courageous" decisions, so make of it what you will. But it may be two and a half hours you can never get back.

     
Sexual Content:
Three brief, extremely cringe-worthy sex scenes (clothed, movement); a crazy woman cuts herself while topless (her breasts are shown, the scene is lengthy); a shot of three women's naked backsides as they bathe in the river; a woman comes on (naked, shadowy) to a man about lying with her (he does). A man says he doesn't care what's in a woman's head or how crazy she is so long as she can "spread her legs."
 
Language:
A dozen uses of God's name coupled with d**n; a half dozen uses of Jesus' name; tons of sh*t, d**mn, etc. One sexual slang term.
 
Violence:
A woman throws a baby down the outhouse hole; another attacks and scrapes her husband; a woman shoots a man in the head; a man finds a body hanging from a tree; two crazy women fight, one kicks the other repeatedly in the face.

 
Other:
None.