Tommy Lee Jones’ bleak expression of our land rape out west is one of the best films of 2014. No, it doesn’t fit into any category, particularly, and it didn’t light the critics on fire at Cannes but it is, to me, as vital a piece in our American story as John Huston’s The Misfits and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. All three of these films show how the women were used, abused, misused and discarded while the menfolk sought to conquer a land already owned by others.
Unlike many directors in Hollywood, Jones isn’t afraid of being someone with a point of view on western expansion. Though he prefers, at least he did in Cannes, to let the movie speak for itself he certainly isn’t going to dodge responsibility for the comfort of others. This movie makes it quite clear that where we settled, how we did it, what we did to Native Americans was flat out wrong. If you build a civilization over the ruin you can expect tragedy to come back to haunt you.
Like 12 Years a Slave last year cleared a path to American history — to show how our American foundation, even our White House, was built on the backs of slaves — The Homesman, too, shows the rotten underbelly of what we all too often celebrate about our proliferation out west.
What is remarkable about The Homesman is that it focuses on a woman, the brilliant Hilary Swank in what has to be my own favorite performance of hers, who isn’t the right kind of livestock for marrying but has strength, wisdom and ambition. Still, there is no future for her in that definition of America, not without a man’s love or at least his desire to marry her. Swank’s character sets out to deliver women who have lost their minds on the homesteads back to people who will look after them. To their husbands, they are livestock gone wrong. They stopped being the right kinds of wives — dead babies, emotional outbursts, mental illness with no hope of treatment. So back they go — their husbands then on the hunt for another.
The Homesman isn’t a film for everybody — and it certainly isn’t what today’s critics would call “perfect.” I don’t know what its Oscar prospects will be because those depend on perception and perception often depends on what critics think. Its best shot for the Oscar race is that its a strong ensemble piece. The actors might push the film through.
It’s frustrating to watch how every year stories about women get the shaft. The latest is the Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, one of the few films with a story revolving around women. Now, The Homesman with Hilary Swank and a strong cast of women will likely not get ushered through. Critics seem up for films where women don’t do a lot of talking, like in Gravity, or where their own emotional trajectory is fairly simplistic — but when things get complicated the critics back way off, as though stories of women on their own aren’t enough, or aren’t good enough.
Performances might burst through, like Swank in The Homesman or Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart in Still Alice, or Reese Witherspoon in Wild – but we never seem to be talking about Best Picture where women are concerned. Sure, David Fincher’s Gone Girl could change all of that. Perhaps Into the Woods might as well. But for now, such is the modern lament of Oscar season.