When I first heard about The Homesman (2014) I was actually excited about it, then the more I heard I became more cautious towards this western (or not if you ask Tommy Lee Jones) as I read the reviews hoping that it could be better. Rare as it is to find a solid Western that’s not a quasi something-or-other instead. We are getting a few this year but it’s not like the 1950’s when you couldn’t move for them. With this latest outing into 19th century America we have a feminist focus to the film, which is quite rare, which I can see where the Unforgiven (1992) comparisons made and finished. The DVD tries to sell it to me this is the best film since Eastwood’s last Western masterpiece and he made a few of them. This is not a masterpiece. I can find a number of flaws with this film which does have good intentions.
As Western lore would have it the male takes the lead out on the frontier, it’s just how the dime-novels and cinema have written it. There have been strong women out there, one being Mrs Jorgensen (Olive Carey from The Searchers (1956), however they are hard to come by and usually there as a thorn in the side of the men. We also have Meek’s Cutoff (2010) where the women have to take charge as they survive out on the trail. Progress is being made but very slowly after 120 years of male dominance we now have Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) living the life alone on the frontier. Youth is not on her side, society is looking down upon her. A spinster is the life she has assumed as we find out early on as she tries to get married. You feel sorry for her, after all the effort she goes to, in the hopes of getting her a man. She just doesn’t know how to, which lets her down. Played with great strength by Swank who bring a lot to the role. Assuming the male duties in life, she has to be a strong Christian character.
Which leads into the tone of the film which is quite strong for the most part, similar to that of True Grit (2010) using a richer language of the time. You are more immersed in the world for it. It’s a shame the set-design lets it down, all the buildings a well crafted and made, however they look just that well made, there’s no sense of time or ageing to them. As if they opening up a flat-pack box, assembled them before the finishing touches (or lack of) which for me is distracting against the landscape that really shimmers. You really are out there in the mid-west.
I mentioned earlier about the feminist leanings of the film which are refreshing, taking on both mental illness and the social position that a woman must or chooses to take in society. It doesn’t even have to be just about America, more the western world. The idea of knowing your place in the worlds being blurred and questioned. Should a woman be a stay at home mum, or out there in the workplace being a success among the men. Should they be judged for that, all encompassed in Bee Cuddy living alone on her homestead and farm, She is more than a match for most women and is respected by men alike, not feared. Maybe part of that is down to the source material by Glendon Swarthout who allegories these ideas. Whilst mental illness is not treated as burden but as an illness that needs proper treatment, radical thinking for the 19th century. Seen in three women who are plagued with various disorders. Although these women Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) are secondary characters they do have ample screen time. We get to understand their suffering whilst the main relationship is going on.
I’ve not even mentioned Tommy Lee Jones yet the director, screenwriter, produces and stars as George Briggs a man who we find being run out of his home and left for dead, seems pretty standard out in the Wild West. Saved by Bee Cuddy who takes pity on him, asking in return he helps on her journey across the Missouri River with 3 women who have “lost their minds” in hopes that they can be properly looked after. So this is a wagon trip, a lone trip with a man and 4 women. This is his way of saying thank you for being saved (or pushed into it). Briggs is a curmudgeonly guy who reluctantly takes up the job, faced with a tattered reputation. He is the brain of the outfit in terms of survival, he knows the wilderness better than Bee Cuddy who is more focused on the caring, her Christian duty to the suffering women.
It’s a real learning curve for Bee Cuddy who becomes more worldly, there’s a scene where we hear screaming from the wagon, she stops to go around to the back to shout at one of the women to stop screaming. One of the symptoms of certain conditions that she or no-one else fully understands. Her limits are being pushed, her faiths questioned on this journey. And then we hit a bump in the road, when we go back to her loneliness, asking for Briggs to marry her, which you don’t really see coming (well kind of). We see she wants a man in her life, even going further yo be with him. It’s handled sensitively until out of nowhere she’s written out. Leaving me with frustration, asking why did you do that. Why can’t we see her reach the end of the journey that she took up, it as her choice. Now its left up to Briggs (reluctantly again) to complete the journey. Not before a pointless stop at a hotel where we find owner Aloysius Duffy (James Spader) unwelcoming. It’s a real tangent that serves little purpose, unless its to say that not all of society is welcoming/understanding to mental illness. I would accept this if there were more random scenes, more offbeat like The Missouri Breaks (1976). It’s not though, and after the death of Bee Cuddy which I’m still trying to understand.
We do return on course (just about) to see the ladies into the care of Altha Carter (Meryl Streep) who is turning up in everything at the moment. Theres time for reflection now as Briggs comes to terms with what has just happened. It feels a bit wishy-washy for me, as he tries to mythologise Bee Cuddy to a girl who cares less. He does become more caring after the journey, so he has grown, yet remains the same as we leave him on a river barge. Left wondering why, why, why did that final act happen as it did. Is this a western, yes and no, it has the language, but not the real form to be a solid western? It does take place in that era, there is moment but not enough as we Jones is using the genre more as a period in history to explore two ideas both from the female perspective, which is rare today.
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.
- Meek’s Cutoff (2010) – Directed by Kelly Reichardt (filmsworthwatching.blogspot.co.uk)
- 44. Meek’s Cutoff (2010) – Directed by Kelly Reichardt (wondersinthedark.wordpress.com)
- Meek’s Cutoff (2010) (gladsomemorning.wordpress.com)
- Meek’s Cutoff (2010) (checkpoint-telstar.blogspot.co.uk)
- Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010) (itpworld.wordpress.com)
- Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010) (grunes.wordpress.com)
- “Meek’s Cutoff” dir. Kelly Reichhardt (jason-hedrick.blogspot.co.uk)
- Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010) (criticafterdark.blogspot.co.uk)