The western is, with the musical, one of the most beloved genres of American cinema that has completely fallen by the wayside. A few people still believe its simple pleasures can be recreated and reconfigured for modern audiences, but experience has somewhat proven it is a beautiful yet somewhat utopian idea, despite the genuine achievements that this "twilight" era of the western has brought.
The Coens' direct and indirect takes on the genre with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men and True Grit come to mind as examples of the continuing relevance of the genre's structures and storytelling in our days. The Coen reference is in fact quite appropriate, since Tommy Lee Jones' sophomore film as a director, The Homesman, could have very well made excellent material for the brothers.
Adapted from a novel by Glendon Swarthout, its loping, zig-zagging plot about a forceful spinster (Hilary Swank) and rowdy frontiersman (Mr. Lee Jones) transporting three settlers' wives gone mad from the Nebraska territory back to civilization, has precious few "western" tropes - no shootouts, no duels, no cavalry charges. Yet it offers a much clearer view of the harshness of the pioneer experience, a curious, episodic odyssey where the traditional landmarks of the genre are all present and correct but seem to be there merely as signposts for Mr. Lee Jones and his pitch-perfect cast to explore the sidetracks and shortcuts hidden behind the main path.
That outwardly The Homesman looks like a classic western, all storybook Little House on the Prairie pictorialism (ravishingly lensed in widescreen by Rodrigo Prieto), then shows itself to be a darker, more melancholy example of the genre, highlights just how much the idea of the genre remains yet needs to be approached differently to work properly in the new era of film that followed the disruption of the studio system. The Homesman fits easily into the current so-called "revisionist" mode, in no small part due to its being a proper "actor's film" where character development takes precedence over plot. The script, co-authored by the star/director, allows a dream list of veteran supporting actors to create a character with a few scenes and strokes (led by the towering, matching performances of Ms. Swank and Mr. Lee Jones).
It should be pointed out that there are moments when you feel The Homesman would benefit from a more experienced director, or that this would also have been good material for Clint Eastwood to direct - but this shouldn't minimize the achievement of this strangely affecting little film that both eulogizes the classic western and proves it still has its place.
France, USA 2014
Cast Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Jo Harvey Allen, Barry Corbin, David Dencik, William Fichtner, Grace Gummer, Evan Jomes, Caroline Lagerfeld, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Miranda Otto, Jesse Plemons, Sonja Richter, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep
Director Mr. Lee Jones; screenwriters Mr. Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver; based on the novel The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout; cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (colour, widescreen); composer Marco Beltrami; designer Merideth Boswell; costumes Lahly Poore-Ericson; editors Roberto Silvi and Larry Madaras; producers Peter Brant, Brian Kennedy and Luc Besson; production companies Europacorp in association with Peter Brant Productions, The Javelina Film Company and Ithaca Films
Screened February 27th 2015, Lisbon