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’m becoming more aware of the post recession films that react to the financial crisis of 2008, the end of the last boom and bust, which saw huge corporations lose millions whilst the average man on the streets life just got harder as the living costs started to increase and jobs became a nightmare to find. I was drawn more than anything to The Company Men by the top-billing that was shared by Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee-Jones and Kevin Costner.
What I found at first was a hard-nosed shipping company/corporation making another round of redundancies, this time affecting one of their best sales executives Bobby Walker (Affleck) who is a cocky salesmen who believes he will bounce back soon with a job that matches his skills and previously salary. Not what the audience knows to be true, having experienced the hard reality of the recession. Whilst we follow to more men at the company a divisional president Gene McClary (Lee-Jones) and Phil Woodward (Cooper) both long-time employees giving thirty years of their lives to this company that has had to take tough decisions to survive, restructuring and downsizing. The two remaining don’t like to see what is happening, seeing good hard-working people being made redundant. All with the help of human resources manager Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) whose seen as a hard-nosed b**** who doesn’t really care who goes.
We follow these three men as they each come to terms with the redundancies. We more easily empathise with Bobby who even with the help of his old employer looks for new employment, understanding the mounting rejection from prospective employers, who believe they are right for the job before having their hopes dashed after all the hollow promises that are made. I personally can understand the struggle to find a job, the pressure and competition for each position. It became disheartening at time with all the rejection that comes your way. More so for Bobby who knows he has to provide for his family who are relying on one source of income, it’s not enough to support the house which they may have to give up. He wants to portray the image of success which he has been used to for some time. An image that he believes will help in securing a new job. He needs to come down to earth.
Whilst for those still at the company things are looking grim as more tough decisions are being made, the face of the once simple shipping construction company becomes far more than it’s beginning. Especially for Gene (Lee Jones) who know longer knows his best and oldest friend Conal (Tom Kemp) who has risen to the top with all the trappings that to the average person are luxuries. Gene who lives a similar life has become jaded to it all and his wife who lives a luxury life. He wants nothing of it, wanting something far simpler.
Whilst for Phil (Cooper) along with Gene are later made redundant. For Phil a man nearing his sixties, his chances of being employed are slim as he soon finds out. Reality is hard to deal with, spiralling into a depression that reflects many who have been victims of the recession.
The Company Men shows the light at the end of the tunnel, when your job and life come crashing down, it;’s how you deal with it that. Falling to the lows that even those in corporations feel, something the majority of the population cannot easily relate to. Seeing the bankers of the world to be the cause of our financial trouble. They are like us, if we like it or not.It has a limited reach to the audience showing how redundancy can affect the average guy, to the executive. It’s only with Bobby’s brother-in-law Jack Dolan (Costner) a builder doing his best to survive in a bleak housing climate. He’s the really the only one we can truly relate to, a hard-working man, who has not had the great success and lifestyle of others. We see others who are struggling and accept anything they are given, something that comes harder to the likes of Bobby.
I don’t think films such as this and Margin Call (2011) will have a massive audience, they focus on the wrong people for a mass audience appeal and empathy. They do try to humanize those who suffer as a result of the crisis that like it or not also are effected. The Company Men (2010) does go some way to breaching that social gap, we all have bills to pay, payments to meet, lifestyles we want to maintain. So does it matter where on the food chain in the workplace you are when and if you do fall?