The popularity of the Western genre began in the 1930s, but reached its peak in the 1950s, when the number of produced Western films outnumbered all other genres combined. Hollywood usually focused on cowboy and outlaw stories, made popular by actors such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. The Homesman is a progressive Western story that shifts the archetypal focus onto women, who are typically marginalized from the genre. The Homesman focuses on the strength and weakness of women living on the frontier, which is a cruel world for them.
The story is simple, but complex in emotion. After a harsh winter, three women go mad. The local reverend arranges for the women to be sent east to a church in Iowa that cares for the mentally ill. The men of the church prove to be unreliable, so Mary Bee volunteers to make the journey alone. Along the way, she encounters a thief, George Briggs, who she enlists to help him with the journey, as the women prove to be more than a handful. Hilary Swank gives a steely and rich performance as Mary Bee, a 31-year-old self-sufficient single woman who is described as “bossy” and “plain as an old tin pail”. Mary Bee Cuddy is resourceful and able to manage a farm on her own. But despite her independence she still longs to be married, in order to fit in with the societal pressures and to bring in more business for the farm. Mary Bee’s failures feel overwhelmingly detrimental to her, and this unravels in a devastating way at the end. Tommy Lee Jones effortlessly plays his typical role as a sarcastic curmudgeon. He also serves as a fine director of the film.
The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto gives the Western landscapes a stark but ethereal beauty. But for as beautiful as the imagery can be, it is also haunting when exploring the unsettling backstories of the women turned mad. The film gives an unflinching look at this, lingering on moments that are hard to watch but must be seen in order to understand the pain that they went through. We plunge the depths of despair by seeing the true natures of their hardship, all of which are stemmed from the mistreatment from men. Their flashbacks are harrowing and gasp-inducing. One woman tosses her infant child down an outhouse pit, another is raped by her husband in the same bed as her mother, her husband raving mad to get an heir. After losing three children in a row, Arabella’s husband is dim-wittingly unsure as to why she is so troubled. Mamie Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter brilliantly round out the cast as these women: Arabella, Theoline and Gro.
The ending of the film stays true to the realistic gravitas of the story, instead of retreating into a scene of heartfelt morality. The Homesman is a feminist western that subverts the genre, showing the brutality of the Old West and focusing on its repercussions on women. It is exciting to see women in this era so deftly and sensitively explored on film.
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at cinematicvisions.wordpress.com.
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