A few years ago I came away from The Homesman (2014) with a negative opinion of the film. I was left cold by the twist in the final act that left me wondering why would they do that to Hilary Swank‘s character. Without thinking it maybe a faithful adaptation of the source material by Glendon Swarthout, which is where my frustration must be properly directed not to actor/director Tommy Lee Jones. Soon after watching the film the DVD was off the shelve and out of my mind, written off as a bad film. That was a few years ago, allowing me to come back and give the Western another chance. I remember being too critical of it, not looking at the beauty that was on the screen. I’ve come away from this revisit feeling far more satisfied, maybe I needed that gap of time to reflect and think, lets give this another go. One of those better decisions made on a whim which has paid off. So why, just why has this film got better with age for me.
Firstly I was struck by the films visual beauty, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a recent Western that has captured the vast openness of the landscape with such delicacy. Placing man on horseback only adds to this splendor. For a time we’re allowed some romanticism of the West before this land is finally tamed. Leaving a sketchy plot to be fleshed out again for me. Beginning with spinster Mary B Cuddy (Swank) a god-fearing woman who works her farm and becoming desperate to find a man and settle down. The reason for her permanent marital status soon becomes blindingly obvious. Her over bearing god-fearing nature, doesn’t make her wife material for single men wanting to make a mark on the land. As much as we understand the reasons for her rejections, you can’t help but feel bad for her. She wants what everyone else has. Social pressure is not on her side either, living alone at her age can only be frowned upon or the talk of the town.
I’m reminded once again of other independent women in the genre, a whole band of women try to make their way across a trail in Meeks Cutoff (2010) relying on two man to lead the way, who are essential lost and clueless. We are left wondering if they make it to the end of the trail. That’s of no concern for Mrs Jorgensen (Olive Carey) and her daughter Laurie (Vera Miles) in The Searchers (1956) who are left waiting for men to return from their 7 year search for two younger women. Both are able and willing to make a life in the West, domesticating the space around them. Cuddy is more than able to survive, but now that’s no longer enough. We see three women lose their grip on their mental faculties, developing conditions that clearly need help that is beyond the abilities of their families or townspeople. Again I’m reminded of The Searchers if only briefly, a rag doll that’s mothered one of the disturbed women like one of those found at an Army fort, rescued white women from Native Americans, clearly disturbed, but drawn to the doll that was once Debbie’s. Clearly a substitute for lost children and a reference to the genre’s past.
We’ve not even met George Brigg’s (Lee Jones) who is still a way off, allowing us to really get to know Cuddy unable to find a husband, takes up the opportunity, fighting against public opinion to take on the task of Homesman, carrying these three troubled women over the Missouri River to Iowa where better care awaits them. Cuddy may appear to be a strong women, yet there are moments of weakness, wondering how much she has taken on alone. Why does she do it, is it distraction from her spinster life, a chance to prove herself in the eyes of god and maybe meet a man who wants her at the end of the trail. With her characters fully fleshed out, we understand and empathise with her.
Now we can meet Briggs a man who’s not off to the best start, smoked out of a sod-house that he’s broken into. Everything we learn about him we struggle to take at face value. It’s only through his actions that we begin to trust him. His meeting with Cuddy can only be seen as miraculous leading him to take the job of helping ensure that 4 women make across the open country. Even today the Wild West is still perceived to be a man’s world, as much as Cuddy wants to go it alone, she still relies on a man for security. She asks for little else from him expect his word to complete the journey under threat of God’s wrath. Or it maybe the promise of $300 at the end of the job.
Either way it’s a long journey that is met with a few obstacles along the way that lead up to the twist I had completely forgotten – Cuddy’s death. The reason I all but gave up on the film. It wasn’t a fever, but a suicide. Unable to go on living as a spinster and a giving into her natural urges and not staying true to her faith. Leaving Briggs with the women to look after, something he hadn’t signed up to, however he rises to the challenge, causing a change of character in him, which surprises me.
I can still see the feminist connections between The Homesman and Unforgiven (1992). Here we have a man working out of obligation for a woman, Cuddy’s takes control, causing a limited role reversal to occur. Whilst in Clint Eastwoods film, three men come to avenge a woman who they hardly know. Taking payment for a job to exact justice that the law won’t deliver for them. Both films see women attempt to take control of their destiny’s in a male dominated landscape. Also looked down upon by society, the prostitutes for their profession whilst Cuddy has become a social concern, without really helping her. Ultimately it’s the men who save the day in both films, they carry the guns and the knowledge to save the women and return to a state of living outside that where women exist. Staying with Homesman to conclude the closing scenes see a transformation to become a better man unlike William Munny whose lost to the violence that was once his life. It takes more time with a woman to soften a man of the West, or the modern West.
When I first read the title You’re Not You (2014) I was thinking this was going to be Hilary Swank‘s Still Alice (2014) which I was wary of. Instead it’s her version of The Theory of Everything (2014). Either comparison you could say is unfair or just coincidence. I decided to give this film which I had slipped by unnoticed last year, probably kept quiet in the wake of Eddie Redmayne was all but silenced. Instead of being a public figure we have a middle-class successful couple who have been married for 15 years. Immediately it feels too polished, to nice and soft. I can see the direction that the film is trying to go in, that anyone can develop Motor neurone disease which is both brave and honest, it can and does effect anyone.
What the real selling point of this film is that it has a female focus, which is refreshing too. There are too many male dominated films, sadly it takes an indie film to add to that minority in Hollywood today. With Swank as the sufferer Kate of the disease and her carer Bec (Emmy Rossum) who goes on the standard transformative journey from failed student to a better person. It’s all pretty standard really for a film that deals with a horrible disease that literally stops you in your tracks.
Ok with my initial thoughts laid out, I need to explore what actually went on. You can see from the start it’s going to be a gentler and more intimate film that has a small cast. Probably a budget aspect but it does allow us to get to know Kate and Bec all that much better. The middle class setting however cold it feels to the audience is there for a reason, looking beyond the nice clothes and house we have a woman with a debilitating disease who is not really understood by her friends who don’t usually see such suffering, wrapped in their comfortable lifestyle. However it feels like it’s poking at the middle class rather than making you think this is your friend who’s sitting there still.
The focusing being the patient carer relationship that begging 18 months into the disease when sometime university student Bec who we find sleeping around, enjoying her single life and all that comes with it. Good on her too, but it all gets shaken up when she goes for an interview that changes her life. The shot in the arm she needed really. Going through life with little responsibility besides looking after her grandma when she as younger, looking after Kate is a big step-up for her. A woman who has just sacked her last carer for making her feel like a patient, something you can really understand. What begins is a relationship that lasts the duration of the film through all the high and lows which get more depressing as the film goes on.
It nearly goes into assisted suicide territory that is quickly averted when they meet fellow sufferer Marilyn (Loretta Devine) and her carer Eric (Ernie Hudson) allowing them to share their experience, knowing that they neither of them are alone. I also have the sneaking suspicion that their inclusion was to tick the minority box so it’s not an all white film, or am I just being cynical. I have to say to Devine’s credit she makes he most of the rare straight role away from comedy. Either way Loretta being another sufferer gives Kate a friend and confidant that she cant have in Bec, making her think about her future which is coming faster than she thinks.
This is all whilst she has broken up with her husband Evan (Josh Duhamel) who has struggled being an almost sole carer and husband. Which the audience is supposed to related to, looking at another aspect of the situation. I just don’t care about him, coming across more of a pretty boy than anything else. I know this film has all the right intentions and is sensitive about Motor Neurone Disease which I can’t fault. The central performances are fine, but don’t really set the world alight, theres nothing that really pulls the heart strings that this subject matter really should do. Which is what Still Alice and The Theory of Everything both have in heaps, and Still Alice is also an indie film, something is definitely missing.