Reeling it in: ‘The Homesman’ paints a bleak portrait

“The Homesman”

EuropaCorp

2 hours, 2 minutes

Straight-to-video used to be a clear indication to the consumer that the movie they had chosen to watch was probably not particularly good. Neither the studio, nor the producers had much faith in it, and as a result, the film was dumped on the home market as a way to squeeze a few bucks out of it to recoup some of the production costs.

Today, however, straight-to-video, or VOD (video-on-demand) as it’s now referred to, means something completely different. It means that with the current fragmented home entertainment model, certain films with niche appeal can be target marketed to a particular audience, thereby maximizing profitability without embarking on an expensive theatrical release. Or, in other words, the weirdos who want to see this particular movie were probably going to wait and rent it anyway, so why bother trotting it out to the theater?

VOD, unfortunately, tells the consumer nothing about quality. It’s all a marketing calculation. Fifteen years ago, if I’d seen the box for a straight-to-video western, directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and starring Jones, Hillary Swank, John Lithgow, James Spader and Meryl Streep, I’d have thought, “Wow. I wonder what went wrong with that production?” Today when I see that line-up, I think, “Hey, that looks good! I think I’ll dial it up!”

Why, oh why couldn’t I have run across “The Homesman” 15 years ago?

Now, before we get too far into this, I know what some of you may be thinking. “What’s this? Why is he telling me about some movie I’ve never heard of and have no intention of seeing? What about Scott Eastwood and Nicholas Sparks and ‘The Longest Ride?’” I have to be honest. I didn’t want to see it. I don’t like Nicholas Sparks and I don’t much like weepy romances, and the paper doesn’t pay me enough to go see every movie that comes out, so until I start seeing some of that Siskel and Ebert dough, I’m going to set my feet occasionally. My wife suggested maybe we should go and we could laugh at it if the movie was bad, but still I resisted.

Poor choice. Instead I rented the aforementioned “Homesman” a pre-civil war Nebraska-set western that is just as bleak and joyless as Tommy Lee Jones could possibly make it. The film chronicles the efforts of one Mary Bee Cuddy, played well by Hillary Swank, who volunteers to accompany three unfortunate women, driven insane by the bleak joylessness that is pre-civil war Nebraska, on their way back to Iowa, and eventually, back East. The opening scenes of the movie involve lots of dust, snow, dead cattle, and more than one movie’s share of dead babies (turn it off! Go see the Sparks movie!).

After obtaining a rig that will enable her to transport the three women, two of whom are catatonic and the third who believes she’s God and also bites, Mary Bee runs across George Briggs, a ne’er-do-well who’s in the midst of being hung for attempting to steal a man’s home who’s merely out of town. Cuddy compels Briggs to help her in return for her saving his life, and off they go. But instead of a rousing, or even meaningful adventure, all we are treated to is depredation and depression, punctuated by disturbing violence, disturbing flashbacks, and disturbing suicide.

Jones is obviously a talented actor and, having been around the industry for so many years, knows how to put together a competent film. The photography is beautiful, the vistas striking, and the story, sad though it is, is at least original.

Unfortunately, action isn’t the director’s forte and scenes where lots of things happen at once come off as awkward and strange. Much of the film is strange, in fact. The acting talent is huge, but great actors making “interesting” choices does not exactly equate to “good” acting. Tonally, as well, the movie is very hard to nail down. Some scenes seem like they are being played for laughs, such as when the dandy with the thick Irish accent turns our protagonists away at the inn, only to see Griggs return later that night to set fire to place, killing all 20 people inside. Yeah. And in case you thought, while looking at the blazing inferno over Grigg’s shoulder as he rides away, “Oh, I’m sure they all ran out the back,” a tiny figure, fully engulfed, plunges headlong out of the fourth story window. Wait, was that supposed to be funny?

I can appreciate some of the craft that went into “The Homesman,” and there’s obviously an attempt toward authenticity. But that doesn’t excuse the central problem, which is that none of it is anything you want to see. Tommy Lee Jones actually directed another film that I tried to watch but couldn’t. “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” was another bleak, man on an impossible journey with an unlikely sidekick film, but wasn’t quite as downbeat. It had a similar quotient of rape, but I don’t remember any dead babies, so there’s that.

I generally like Jones’ films, but I’m beginning to think we share differing world-views. One thing I will take away from all this: the next time my wife suggests we go out to have fun watching a bad movie, I’m going.

Grade: C-

“The Homesman” is rated R for violence, sexual situations, rape, language, and adult situations.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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