Usually when an actor decides to write, produce, direct, and star in a movie, disaster hides just around the corner, an elbow clearly visible, alerting you to its presence, warning you of an impending “boo!”, one that you lack the strength to avoid because, damn it, disaster just endears to you so much, and could use the giggle storm that would doubtless follow your feigned surprise once it jumps out at you… hah… sorry, I got a little lost there. Sometimes that doesn’t happen, and you get the drop on disaster, but still preserve the giggling. I’m thinking in that case of Clint Eastwood, Billy Bob Thornton, uhm, I guess Jackie Chan. It can work. Most of the time, though, it’s just gawd awful. Anyhoozle, it comes as a great surprise and relief when that’s not the case.
The Homesman (2014)
The Plot: When three women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, and Sonja Richter) succumb to madness at the merciless hands of life on the American frontier, Mary (Hilary Swank), an unmarried homesteader, volunteers to drive them by wagon five weeks cross-country so they can receive treatment and return east. Recognizing her own lack of experience hunting and shooting, and with the perils of the wilderness, she employs George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a low-life rover, to accompany the party. The moral of the story is that everything truly sucked on the frontier.
So yes, The Homesman is written, directed, produced by and starring not Hilary Swank, but Tommy Lee Jones. Usually if such an endeavor by an actor will fail in any one category, it’s the screenplay. While not bad, the script lacks some ingenuity. Another rewrite could have brought the dialogue to a sharper point. Like so many other indie movies, Jones wants to provide the most content in the sparsest dialogue. The lines aren’t quite packed with the information he wants, though, and can come across as stiff and bare. Fortunately, the movie is about how stiff and bare the landscape and lifestyle are, so it sort of fits. The real danger comes from approaching Cormac McCarthy-levels of dismal. The Homesman, ladies and gents, is not a pleasant movie, nor does it uplift or offer up any sort of comfort or even really hope. I guess that’s the inherent drawback to being based on a novel from 1988. What a decade, eh? It seems everyone felt pretty good about themselves except authors. I don’t know what was up with them.
Still, it’s refreshing to see that a major Hollywood star wouldn’t pull his punches or skimp on the grit. I guess it helps that, for the most part, Tommy Lee Jones isn’t trying to make a Western. I know it’s fallen somewhat out of popular favor, but I consider myself a pretty big fan of the Western genre. That said, it very rarely ever concerns itself with historical accuracy. Westerns focus on the vision of the American West, the Legend, Mr. Wayne, the Legend. They seldom depict the West as it was, but rather as it could have been. The frontier was dead and America was at war with its ideologically polar opposite, so a little Romance here and there definitely came as a good thing. I guess by the late 80s nobody felt that was necessary anymore, and we stopped making movies and writing books about the idea of the West and started in on the soul-crushing, arid, baby-killing reality.
The areas where Jones falters in regards to this are music and cinematography. The original score by Marco Beltrami (3:10 to Yuma, The Hurt Locker) beautifully and quietly sets a tone of melancholy, longing, loneliness, and stiff-upper-lip suffering. The cinematography stunningly captures the glory of every frontier sunset. They are both amazing, and totally ill-suited for this film. The cinematography and music simultaneously make up my favorite part of The Homesman and its biggest problem. They fit perfectly in a Western, but not in a movie about the West. The sparse screenplay, the depressing performances, and the frank direction form a tone of desperation and despair, totally undermined by the flawlessly pretty music and camerawork.
I guess, “This movie had great music and looked really pretty,” isn’t much of a damning criticism. I think the script would have benefited from another draft or two, but Tommy Lee Jones’ direction worked on most levels. I certainly can’t see any way to improve his framing. The film also benefits from having an expansive cast of cameo performances from whichever of his friends Jones could cajole or finagle into the film. This cast includes (but is not limited to) James Spader, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, William Fichtner, Hailee Steinfeld, and (of course) Meryl Streep. As an early attempt at directing, he did well. As a successful actor’s early attempt at directing, it could have been so, so much worse.