Saturday, May 16, 2015

Netflixing ~ The Homesman

We Netflixed into the movie The Homesman one night this week. Tommy Lee Jones is always good value, and in this case he not only took a leading part in the film, he directed it, and co-wrote the screenplay. The film is an adaptation of Glendon Swarthout's novel of the same name, a novel that has, I understand, been waiting for years for its transition to film. Originally the rights were owned by Paul Newman, then Sam Shepard, but neither was able to gave it the push it needed. If Newman or Shepard had intended taking the leading male role, much as I admire(d) both actors, in my opinion they'd not have made as good a "George Briggs" as did Tommy Lee Jones.

The film is one of those "warts an' all" stories of how the west - or west-ish - territories of the US were trying to be "won" by intrepid 19th century pioneers. The Homesman tale begins in the wild empty expanse of Nebraska territory in the 1850s. A small community of settlers has sprung up in Loup, near the Loup River. A few families are trying to survive amid devastating conditions, high winds, snow, ice, dust, poverty, on small farms, a long distance from the next small town.

In Loup we meet Mary Bee Cuddy, a farmer, she's living alone, unmarried, a former teacher from New York. She is relatively successfully farming her own small spread. Not all the females of Loup are coping as successfully as Cuddy though. Three (four in the novel, I think) have completely lost their sanity from trying to cope with the harsh conditions, loss of multiple children from disease (diphtheria), loss of love for their husbands many of whom have grown coarse and unfeeling, and ultimately loss of all hope. The townspeople, under advice from their church minister, have decided that the three women must be escorted back eastward to Iowa, where another minister's wife has established a help centre for the mentally unstable.

The men refuse the task of homesman (escorting immigrants back to their previous homes, or to another location). Mary Bee Cuddy (played by Hilary Swank) volunteers for the job. Cuddy has, not so secretly, wanted to marry, has even proposed marriage to single male neighbours, but has been turned down more than once due to her perceived bossy nature and plain appearance. She's not pretty-pretty, but she certainly ain't exactly plain to my eye. Ironically, the guy we see turning her proposal down is plug-ugly (as they used to say) himself, but that didn't matter, did it? Maybe they didn't have mirrors!

Cuddy realises almost immediately after setting out on her homesman duties that she'll need help. Fate or fortune brings her onto a path where a claim jumper, seated on a mule, has been left to hang. Cuddy persuades him that if she rescues him he must accompany and help her. "George Briggs" as the claim jumper calls himself is played by Tommy Lee Jones, of course, and is at his surly best.

I'll not give away the continuing storyline. There are lots of good reviews, of varied opinions, on line for anyone interested and unlikely to read the book or see the film.

The film reminded me of several others. First off I thought of Lonesome Dove, due mainly to the fact that both stories involve a long journey across wild territory, both with Tommy Lee Jones involved. Then, the unlikely mix of personalities portrayed in The Homesman: educated, bordering on sophisticated Mary Bee Cuddy and unruly, unprincipled, wild-eyed George Briggs simply had to bring to mind the pair of characters in that classic movie African Queen. Another "warts an' all" western, of more recent years, Unforgiven - a Clint Eastwood film - came to mind also.

The harshness of life for women pioneers was never properly addressed in all those sentimental, comfortable early western movies with which we grew familiar in the 1950/60s, and even later than that. There's a lovely statue/sculpture up in Ponca City, Oklahoma titled "Pioneer Woman", erected in honour of such women, but even the woman in the statue looks well-fed and prosperous compared to the women of The Homesman.

As we watched the movie I recalled a tiny group of marked graves we came across several years ago beside Talimena Drive, on the border of Oklahoma and Arkansas. Someone had left a plastic covered note on one of the small graves telling how it marked the resting place of a child of 6 years who had been killed by wolves, after her parents, pioneer settlers, had died. I've never forgotten that telling marker.

In The Homesman a nice point is made about civilisation in general. Harsh and crude as conditions were for early settlers, who themselves often descended into hardness and crudeness, there was still a kind of unspoken code of ethics and morality going on. People would help each other, come to aid of anyone when in difficulty, for instance. But, in an oddly out-of-place segment of The Homesman story, Tommy Lee Jones' character, transporting the three deranged women, comes upon a rather fancy hotel in the middle of nowhere (quite literally middle of nowhere).

A snazzily dressed would-be nobleman, in charge of the hotel (Irish accent clunkily affected by the otherwise wonderful James Spader) refuses food and rest to the starving travellers who haven't eaten for three days. The reason, he offers: he awaits a group of investors who will fill the hotel, speculators aiming to build a new "civilisation" in this wilderness. A huge spread of good food is awaiting the expected guests. After gentle, and not so gentle, begging by George Briggs, for at least some food for the women, Spader's character remains unmoved and refuses. So this is going to be the flavour of new "civilisation": cold, unfeeling, grasping. (This thought must have crossed Tommy Lee Jones' mind as director, and that of his fictional character, George Briggs).

It's not a great movie, but it's a good one for anyone interested in US history - the quiet, unsung history, not the well-known razzmatazz variety. Even if not historically-minded though, there are interesting relationship issues, civilisation issues, personality issues, redemption (or not) issues, women's issues to be discovered and pondered upon, all barely under the story's surface.


Sonny G said...

I wanted a movie for this afternoon- so now I have one.. thanks Annie

Twilight said...

Sonny ~ I'd be interested to know your opinion, later.
I hope you find it enjoyable. There are a few cringe-worthy moments, but given the subject matter that's not surprising.

mike said...

The rationale for the basic plot sounds similar to the European version of ship of fools! It so often seems that our modern era is lacking a foundation of humanity and civility, but a glance back only a hundred or two hundred years reveals an engrossing saga of existence and survival. Death's knock knew no boundaries and survivors were often the unfortunate ones.

My grandfather was born in the late 1800s and had many tales that I perceived as hardship, but he reminisced as being so much better than his parents' and grandparents' generations...they were the original settlers in Kansas. Grandpa was turned-out on his own at the age of thirteen, but that was typical in the early 1900s, unless one's parents had money. His education was through the sixth grade, also normal for that period.

There was a program on PBS several months ago about the polio and tuberculosis epidemics here in the USA, which didn't abate until the early 1950s, with the advent of antibiotics. Both of my parents talked of childhood friends that were fine one day, but gone the next, due to accidents or illnesses. My father had polio as a child, but recovered completely, and my mother suffered scarlet fever...they both lived into their early 90s.

It's easy to forget that if you are alive today, you therefore have the best of the best genes! We often forget what it took for our progenitors to get us to the here and now...LOL.

I've not been truly satisfied with the Netflix offerings...seems that any movie I want is on DVD or simply not available. I peruse their selections periodically and mark particular selections for viewing, so my "to watch" list has grown. I'll put "The Homesman" on the list, too.

mike (again) said...

P.S. - I'll keep my fingers crossed for your safety with these storms moving through! I think you are in the red or orange zone today. We had another horrific blast yesterday with torrential rain, high wind, ridiculous lightening-thunder, and three tornadoes (no damages). We seem to receive these about every three days and our ground is very saturated, so lots of flooding now.

You too, LB...I saw that San Francisco had heavy rain and some flooding.

Sonny G said...

wow.. the daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed that movie.yes. some tough spots but this very good..I may watch again this coming week in case I missed anything.

thanks again Annie

Twilight said...

We often forget what it took for our progenitors to get us to the here and now...LOL. Yes!
Indeed - and that's much the same for every country, even those perceived as already "civilised" in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Pioneers had it that much harder though, it's true.

"Good old days" weren't THAT good on close inspection. I do think that, through their difficulties ordinary (non-wealthy) people felt closer to one another though, in communities, than they do now, in spite of all our social networking.

Re Netflix - we struggle to find decent movies too, and rely on old TV series as "staples". Several movies we've begun watching have had to be dumped after the first 15 or 20 minutes. Those available without extra payment are definitely from second-rate or worse groups. I was quite surprised to find "The Homesman", being as recent as it is, available without extra $s. I hope you enjoy when you come to watch it. :-)
(again) ~ Thanks, yes, here we go again, after a couple of quiet days, storm-wise. I think the Okie counties to our west might fare worse that we will, according to some forecasts, but we'll be on our guard anyway. I'm keeping an eye on the radar map at accu-weather.

Stay dry and safe yourself, mike, down there in the tropics. ;-)

Twilight said...

Sonny ~ So pleased you enjoyed the film! :-)

LB said...

Thanks, Twilight. Based on your review, I just requested the movie from our library. I've said it before ~ I think you missed your true calling as a movie critic.:)

When I first began reading your post, I thought you might be reviewing an older movie (also a Western) starring Tommy Lee Jones: "The Missing":

Stay safe today.


mike ~ My husband and I watched those same reports of rain and thunder on our local news channel. Too bad we didn't experience any of it - we need the rain!

The Bay Area is a big place with different microclimates.:0

Twilight said...

LB ~ Oh good! I do hope you enjoy it, and will let us know, in tdue course. :-)

I'm not certain whether I ever saw "The Missing" (2003). I used to try to see anything at all of TLJ's, even some of his very earliest stuff, when he was young and quite striking. I still remember clearly his great performance in "The Executioner's Song" (TV mini-series I think it was); then his part in "Lonesome Dove" had me hooked all over again. :-)

Will search Netflix, maybe they have "The Missing". Even if I did see it some 10 years ago, I'd watch it again.

Twilight said...

LB ~ forgot to say - Thanks watching weather - nothing so far, I think it'll be early evening before any storms reach us. There seems to be less around, yet, than expected.

LB said...

Twilight ~ If you run out of movies (and haven't already seen it), you might look for the BBC miniseries, "Middlemarch", based on George Eliot's novel. My husband and I just finished watching and loved it:

One of our local librarians was kind enough to share her extensive list of favorite movies/miniseries with me. Middlemarch was among them.

Twilight said...

LB ~ Thank you! "Middlemarch" is now added to our list.

LB said...

You're welcome.:) We have you to thank for turning us on to BBC miniseries in the first place.

Btw, the library sent me an email notice this morning letting me know "The Homesman" was there for me to pick up. I was surprised at how quickly it arrived ~ normally it takes longer.