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THE HOMESMAN

★★★★

WOMEN IN CRISIS IN THE OLD WEST

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By Daniel Lammin
21st June 2015
Though this is his third film as director, Tommy Lee Jones had not yet tackled one of the genres he had become such a picture of. As hard as it might be to believe, ‘The Homesman’ is his first western as director and co-writer. After leaving audiences and critics impressed with his first two films, he opens up the canvas with a harrowing and unexpected story of the Old West, anchored by a perspective on the unforgiving lifestyle and landscape often ignored in popular culture.

Three women living in Nebraska in 1855 have suddenly lost their minds. Their husbands are unsure what to do with them, and the town is eager to find them help. Their only option is to take the women on a five-week journey east, where they can be properly cared for. The only person brave enough to take the journey though is Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), an unmarried woman determined to prove her worth and bravery. Taking on a disagreeable drifter named George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) as help, she braves not only the danger of the landscape, but the insanity of her three charges.

Though it might look like an average run-of-the-mill entry to the Western genre, there’s something immediately hypnotic and very disturbing about ‘The Homesman’. The plight of women on the American frontier is rarely explored, and certainly not as explicitly as this. All three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) have suffered their own personal hell, and Mary Bee sees her role as a survivor to bring these women to some kind of peace. As director, Tommy Lee Jones keeps the cinematic tricks to a minimum, instead allowing the taught screenplay and terrific performances do the work. He wisely keeps to the side, though some of his decisions (such as occasionally flashing back to episodes charting the women’s slip to insanity) end up being inspired and brave. More importantly though, he acknowledges that in the midst of this difficult material, moments of levity are necessary. Just as surprising as the sense of unease that pervades the film are the exquisite moments of black comedy, each executed with the same integrity as the other. Whenever you feel like you’re one step ahead of the film, it takes another surprising turn, which keeps the narrative sharp and the rhythm immediate. Even if it wasn’t as accomplished as it is, the fact that we have a Western about the female experience of the Old West is enough of a reason to celebrate.

'THE HOMESMAN' TRAILER

Hilary Swank delivers another intelligent and detailed performance as Mary Bee. Even with her feminine gowns, she’s as hard as stone and as hardy as leather. Her lack of femininity is both her weapon and her downfall, and Swank revels in exploring the disconnect between her desire to be counted as a man and to be recognised as a woman. Jones is surprisingly energetic and doddering as Briggs, at least at first. A lot of room is given him to grow as a character, and to come to an understanding of the plight of the women in his care, which may include Mary Bee. Gummer, Otto and Richter throw their bodies into their roles, almost devoid of dialogue. They are screaming, keening creatures, ready to bite and attack at a moment's notice. The main cast are supported by one hell of an ensemble, which includes John Lithgow, William Fichtner, Tim Blake Nelson, Jesse Plemons, James Spader, Hailee Seinfeld and Meryl Street.

Of the many great decisions Tommy Lee Jones makes as director of ‘The Homesman’, it’s his commitment to the feminine side of the story that becomes the most important. Not only does it set the film apart from its contemporaries, it offers a perspective wholly new and emotionally resonant. It’s both deeply disturbing and surprisingly funny, and relentlessly haunting. Hopefully ‘The Homesman’ becomes a standard in the Western genre.

Hilary Swank delivers another intelligent and detailed performance as Mary Bee. Even with her feminine gowns, she’s as hard as stone and as hardy as leather.

PICTURE & SOUND
Madman are releasing ‘The Homespun’ on both Blu-ray and DVD, though only the latter was available for review. The standard definition 2.40:1 transfer looks fine enough, but with such rich visuals, there’s definitely a lot of detail lost. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track also doesn’t have the kick a lossless track would, especially with the strange and eclectic score from Marco Beltrami. I imagine the video and audio on the Blu-ray release will be significant improvement, but for those okay with standard definition presentation, this DVD will do the trick nicely.

SPECIAL FEATURES
Most of the features included end up just being repetitive promotional material, though the intelligent cast do offer some interesting insights into the film and Jones’ process. The bulk comes in interviews with Tommy Lee Jones (6:49) and Hilary Swank (9:06), though much of this material is repeated in the production featurettes, ‘The Story’ (2:37), ‘The Cast’ (2:16), and ‘Western or Not?’ (1:57), which seems like a redundant question (something Jones seems to think too). The package is rounded off with some B-roll behind the scenes footage (7:30) and a theatrical trailer. By the looks of it, this is a completely different set of extras to the U.S. release, though I’m not sure if the actual content is the same.

FAST FACTS
RELEASE DATE: 24/06/2015
RUN TIME: 2h 2m
CAST: Tommy Lee Jones
Hilary Swank
William Fitchner
Meryl Streep
Grace Gummer
Miranda Otto
Sonja Richter
DIRECTOR: Tommy Lee Jones
WRITERS: Tommy Lee Jones
Kieran Fitzgerald
Wesley Oliver
PRODUCERS: Luc Besson
Peter Brant
Brian Kennedy
SCORE: Marco Beltrami
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