Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Finding Answers amidst Despair

This time of year, a good number of films that have numerous things to say about inner strength premiere on screens across the country. Many of these works are properly noble, with stories of courage in the face of brutality; these are often big studio projects crafted to catch the attention of the Academy for Oscar glory.

Then you have a film such as The Homesman. Set in the Nebraska Territory of the 1850s, this is a film that is strikingly original in many ways. It's not a Western and it's certainly not a revisionist Western, though it has some of the trappings as such. Rather, it's a character study of two lonesome people, brought together by pure fate, who take on a difficult task, all the while trying to find meaning in their immediate lot in lives - as well as in their relationship with each other.

Tommy Lee Jones directed, co-wrote the screenplay and stars in the film; clearly his dedication and love for this project is heartfelt. Working together with the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Wolf of Wall Street, Argo, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Babel), Jones' direction is assured, as he takes his time with each scene, showing the absurdity along with the reality of this strange journey. At times reminiscent of the Coen Brothers' True Grit, at times displaying influences of Night of the Hunter, Jones directs with one eye on the past and one looking at a highly original vision of the heartland. The compositions are arresting, with Jones and Prieto shooting with long lenses, often showing the wagon that is at the center of this tale dwarfed by the wide-open prairie.

The story - one of the most unusual I've encountered in recent years - is how a strong, independent woman named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) must travel from her home in Nebraska in a covered wagon containing three young local women who have recently gone mad. Their husbands cannot handle them - one of the women cannot even speak - so it falls to Cuddy to take these poor souls to Iowa where a minister and his wife will care for them.

Shortly after her journey begins, she happens to see George Briggs (Jones) sitting upon his horse under a huge tree with a noose around his neck. If the horse moves too far, Briggs will hang, so he begs Cuddy for his life. She cuts him down, but only after he agrees to help her with her demanding task.

The film plays out on two levels: the physical and mental difficulties of transporting these three women hundreds of miles across the plains and secondly, the ongoing bond between Cuddy and Briggs. She is a God-fearing, hard-working woman who is not married; her plain looks and strong will have scared off her would-be suitors (as we see in early on in the film). He is independent, living only day to day, in search of a warm place to sleep, a decent meal and a drink or two of whisky. Their conversations rarely amount to much, but they do proceed from single syllables to at least a few words now and then, as each needs the other, if only to survive the trip.

He hates this job, but there's some good money for him at the end of the trail, while for her, it's a journey that is a self-examination of her soul. Will she pause long enough to consider how others view her? She is single-minded, which makes her an ideal choice for this journey, but she suffers from a lack of inner pride; perhaps Griggs can help her overcome that.

About thirty minutes before the conclusion, a plot twist brings Briggs to a new awareness of how cruel and unfair life can be; Jones is particularly good on screen at this moment. While there are times his performance seems like many others he has given in previous films, his portrayal of Griggs as a man wandering through a maze is excellent. Likewise for Swank, who has the steely presence to make her character come alive.

I mentioned director of photography Prieto before; the man is clearly at the top of his game. His use of light is magnificent in this film, from the flames of a fire in a cave late at night to the bright blues and muted whites of a bleak, cloud-filled winter's sky. He even slightly overexposes the prairie images a few times in the film; the effect is subtle, but perfect in keeping with the film's tone of nature overwhelming these individuals.

I previously wrote that late fall and winter is the time of year we get "important" films from Hollywood. This is not one of those sincere, uplifting films that takes itself seriously. Rather, The Homesman, thanks to its intelligent screenplay, beautiful direction by Jones, arresting photography by Prieto, and two notable performances by its leads, is a film of constant wonder at the role humans play in life. We may be insignificant in the large picture, but we can do good for others, even if we don't realize exactly how we need to go about it. The Homesman does not give us easy answers, but rather asks some tough questions and for that, it's a work that is at once haunting and at the same time, mysterious.

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