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The Homesman – Haunted by How the West was Won

The Homesman works as both an entertaining western as well as a subtle commentary on a dark moment in our American history, specifically how the West was won, when settlers stole the land outright from Native Americans and justified their cruelty with Christianity. We took what we wanted with little regard for what was there before. The immoral behavior of a supposedly moral people is a shameful part of our American story we don’t often tell. The film uses the heartless treatment of women as its backdrop, with Native Americans cast as a savage specter to be feared. The truth is that much of what the pioneers needed to fear was the brutality they brought with them.

The Homesman is an intricately designed film, unpredictable in its execution and refusing to conform to genre expectations. If anything, it comments on familiar tropes of western films with cold rebuke. Laced with sardonic humor but primarily stark and tragic, The Homesman proves Jones has become a formidable director. Exploring a topic close to his heart, the evils of our own imperialist past and the echoes of that evil which haunts our history today, Jones delivers a sensitive exploration of the plight of the downtrodden, particularly from the vantage of women — an angle most Hollywood films have all but abandoned. The Homesman is about our past, the crimes committed under the cloak of manifest, but it is also about the little told story of what those events did to the women who either tried to settle a homestead on their own, or else were taken there as young brides and meant to provide children and wifely duties for men.

The film follows the story of Mary Bee Cutty (a most excellent Hilary Swank) who takes it upon herself to homestead her own land. She can shoot, she can cook and clean, she can stand up to any man — but still, she is ultimately defined by whether or not she can attract a much-needed man for marriage, for protection, for help and perhaps for a little physical attention. She is a strong woman, the kind we don’t see in Hollywood films anymore (of course) but her fragility is also part of her identity as a woman.

Cutty elects to drive three women who have gone insane (played beautifully by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) across country, transporting them back east where they came from, to join the church and eventually, their families. No one else wants to do it and most fear Cutty can’t make it all that way on her own. This resourceful woman knows she can’t so she brings along George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) to help, paying him $300. He acts as though he’s only in it for the money, kind of resists any urge towards kindness toward Cutty or the women. But as the story unfolds his humanity is revealed. Does that mean he’s a changed man? Maybe. It’s complicated.

The proprietary treatment of women and the stealing of land — essentially all part of the same patriarchal climate of the olden days — is a topic not often explored in American film. Sure, some directors have gone there. Kevin Costner and Terrence Malick, but few of those stories have ever told the whole truth about what happened to many pioneer women back then. Kelly Reichardt went there with Meek’s Cutoff. Jones is absolutely going there, though the themes are not obvious ones.

Many women went west settled the land on their own. There were unmarried female homesteaders along with the male homesteaders and many discovered what they needed to survive was a husband. They had to have a man because the land was too rough, the perils of the prairie too desperate and dreadful. Once a woman did marry her health was constantly in jeopardy. Childbirth with no medical care, sexual abuse with no refuge — and of course mental health concerns were unheard of. Any emotional breakdown got you tagged as a crazy person and you were carted off to your family back east, abandoned as chattel that was no longer useful.

Cutty can handle the responsibility, for the most part, but if she can’t, she can fake it — managing as best she can until she can no longer do so. Her very nature, though, is the antithesis of what most men on the frontier would want. One cowboy on the prairie picks up a catatonic woman wandering the prairie (Grace Gummer), and simply asks “can she spread her legs?” Swank’s Cutty is labeled “too bossy” and “too plain” to marry. Imagine that. The resilient internal grace she does possess is overlooked. She does not fit with the times because she is not subservient.

These competing ideas sometimes work against each other, as we find ourselves on the side of dubious characters. We like them, but should we? Are they reliable? Many actions they take force us to ask who they really are, as though we are being tricked by our own perceptions. Does the film unfold in unpredictable, sometimes contradictory ways? Yep. Does it often inject images and plot points that don’t make apparent sense? Yep. Does it hover somewhere between comedy and tragedy? It does. Does it ultimately work? Absolutely.

The Homesman is a haunting depiction our American roots, many of which the standard history books simply refused to acknowledge until quite recently. In many ways, America is defined by its westerns and in American cinema those westerns we all remember and treasure perpetuated the lies of the founding of the west. The blatant imperialism of the time was bolstered by the pervasive belief that 19th century pioneers were destined by dint of racial and cultural superiority to expand westward across the continent, obliterating everything in their path that stood before, to reshape the continent coast to coast.

Anyone locked into to traditional prospects of the western genre will have those notions torn apart by The Homesman. Some may want it to be a revenge fantasy, perhaps. Others may want it to be a rough-hewn love story with a happy ending. This film will confound those hopes. That is perhaps what makes The Homesman such an exciting film to watch — you think you know where it’s going until you realize it’s going somewhere else entirely. At some point, you abandon all expectations and let the movie take you where it wants to go.

What we don’t get much of anymore is complex storytelling in American cinema, where answers aren’t handed out readily and audiences are required to form their own opinions about what they’re seeing on screen. We just don’t live in that kind of climate anymore. But this filmmaker, with this film, is doing what filmmakers did when that kind of ambiguity and complexity was valued over commercial prospects.

Some in attendance here at Cannes won’t bother to dig that deep. They are looking for the instant payoff, the major “play” where everything is signed, sealed and delivered. The truth is, Oscar gold is mined, not born. Movies aren’t bred ready-made to win Best Picture, not usually, not these days. The best Oscar movies emerge from raw places and then get shaped by the debate they raise, by the way they touch audiences along the way. The Homesman has more than enough going for it to guarantee that debate.

It’s clear that Tommy Lee Jones’ bluntness and stark honesty as a person has carried over into his filmmaking. He pulls no punches here. Dead babies thrown in outhouses, women sticking needles into them until they bleed, men forcefully raping women because they are their husbands. The west was settled under false pretenses. Women went there buying into that lie. They were made to suffer for it, and in the end, so were the men.

Despite the charming moments that lull you back into a world that makes more sense, Jones does not let our comfort last long. To that end, you should be more than prepared for the dramatic turn the story takes. If it takes you by surprise you weren’t paying attention to begin with.

Some of the film is likely to be misinterpreted by today’s tone deaf social justice bloggers. If a character in the film criticizes Native Americans they will conclude that the film is criticizing Native Americans. If women in the film are treated badly by male characters? They will conclude that the filmmakers are mistreating women. This new generation of the outraged seems to have trouble recognizing the power of art to make a point. What they are seeking is something art should never be obliged to give.

Forcing artists to adhere to a preordained list of what should and shouldn’t be included in a film is a form of fascism we should all oppose, especially when a film like this comes along. Go after Michael Bay, fine. Go after mainstream Hollywood for its continual focus on the white male central figure. That is all justified. But when an artist is trying for something much deeper, much more intricate than merely to entrance its audience, to criticize it for not following those rules is choking the life out of art.

The cast is excellent. Swank is always at her best when appropriately cast. This has happened a handful of times and two of those times earned her an Oscar win. Though it’s not clear if her part is ultimately big enough for a lead nomination, given the scant supply of strong female performances each year it seems pretty likely she will, in fact, get that nomination once again provided the film gets a fair shake. Jones is magnificent, as usual, and turning in wonderful cameos – James Spader and Meryl Streep.

“How much can a person take?” That is what Swank asks about her character’s ultimate fate. And indeed, despite our grandiose impression of our empire, we are only human in the end and we can only take so much. The west was won was by violent conquest. A brutal invasion built the world we now enjoy. The bones are buried underneath. This film excavates them, and with it the unmistakable stench of the dead.