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.
I saw a trailer for Meek’s Cutoff a few years ago, catching my interest, the cast I knew little about, the cast is usually the first thing that draws me to a film. However there was something about this that stood out to me, the visual style of this western, a fairer representation of women who historically have been seen more as the sex appeal and giving into the dominant men. Of course there were strong roles found during the 1950’s. I think you just had to find the right actress to bring those roles to life.
Coming also with knowledge of the Oregon Trail that has been mentioned in numerous westerns. I never understood what was so good about Oregon why that state. Before learning that was the point where settlers then went their own way. Coming into this film with more knowledge than we actually have in the film, we found a group of lost settlers, complete with three wagons and a guide.
It’s not you’re conventional western, using all the language of the genre in this usually forgotten aspect, as all the settlers either make it in the wagon train or are killed by Native Americans along the way. You never see the lost wagons who have to make it alone, a fate worse than death for these people. Who we now focus on as they make their way through a short cut to rejoin the trail. Three families who have to trust their guide who loses his credibility along the way.
The dialogue is kept to a minimum in the first half as they make their way across the open and vast country, saying very little, more a wonder and hope of food and water, which becomes one of the main theme as water becomes a priority for them, vital for survival. There’s a sense of hope being drained from them all, most in the guide a scruffy man whose face is covered in a thick grey beard, Meek (Bruce Greenwood) a man who has not spent much time in civilised society starts to show his lack of knowledge to these people. Still he remains loyal, out of employment and duty to see them to safety.
It’s only when they encounter a Native American, a figure they as a culture has been taught to fear, the stories of savagery that you never usually hear in the genre, far darker in tone. All this is reinforced by Meek who wants to hurt the innocent native, a racism that runs deep. If it wasn’t for the families who restrain him, still fearful of the stranger, the only hope of finding water.
It’s a rare western that focuses on the hardship that the early settlers, something that is overlooked or romanticized in the classic genre, creating a sense of legend and hope, the foundation of a great country. You can easily forget those who got lost along the way. There is a bleakness to the look of the film, with a washed out pastel pallet during the day. Whilst at night we loose all light practically which adds to the authenticity of the trail. None of classical studio lighting we are used to from bright campfires. Meek’s Cutoff is a rare chance to see into that lost history that the myth of conquest overlooks. With some strong performance from mostly unknown actors who usually have supporting roles, from Paul Dano who seems to be making a lot of period work, to the more mainstream Michelle Williams who takes on strong female role out in the male dominated world.
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