At a time when the Revisionist Western is now more common than the traditional variety it subverted, the market for new angles from which to deconstruct America’s expansion has gotten a bit flooded. There are no more tales of do-gooders and lawmen versus scoundrels and ruffians who want to exploit the wild frontier, only morally ambiguous tales of simple folk attempting to live a moral life in an amoral, uncaring environment with occasional nods to the way the age of the Robber Barons shaped today’s political, economic, and racial landscape. This is mostly a good thing, as we have a lot of bullshit built into our national mythology that needs to get mucked out, but it can make the process of actually watching these movies—despite their qualities—a little repetitive.
Enter The Homesman from director Tommy Lee Jones, a sly, challenging film from a budding filmmaker who has clearly found his rhythm. We follow the story of “uncommonly single” Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) and a directionless claim jumper who takes the name “George Briggs” (Jones). While driving a wagon with three mentally ill and/or traumatized women from her community in the Nebraska Territory into Iowa, Cuddy discovers Briggs in the process of being hanged. She saves his life in exchange for his help on the journey, and finds him to be a capable and honest man, but one with no loyalty at all. Along the way, we see flashbacks that show the gradual deterioration of the women’s mental state in the unforgiving terrain.
In the same way Revisionist Westerns turned traditional tropes on their head, so does The Homesman subvert Revisionist conventions; rather than tracing modern problems back to the moral faults of the frontier, this vision of the Old West is beset by social ills that feel starkly modern, but that the world is not yet equipped to address. Even when nobody understood mental health from a medical point of view, people still had to face it as best they could. Cuddy isn’t out to protect her successful farm from roving bandits, but is desperately seeking a husband to share her life’s work. At one point, Briggs finds himself unwelcome at a poker table because his money is seen by his hosts as less important as his social standing.
The jarring changes of tone will not be for everybody, but they are vital to the way Briggs and Cuddy adapt to situations that require shifting morality. In this world, sometimes the only way to do the right thing is to commit an atrocity along the way. Darkly comic and quietly subversive, The Homesman may be the most successful rethinking of the American Western since Unforgiven.
THE HOMESMAN | RATED R | IN THEATERS FRI 11.21
OPEN RANGE (Netflix, iTunes, Amazon)
If Kevin Costner ever steps behind the camera of another movie, the ads will no doubt say “From the director of Dances with Wolves.” Which will be a pity, considering Open Range is a much steadier, more interesting, more heartfelt film than any proto-Avatar going native fantasy. Costarring Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, and Diego Luna, the movie is a simple tale of a rancher and Civil War veteran who must protect his herd, but the undeniable sense of presence, weight, and history in every line of dialogue will keep you invested past the familiar bits.
UNFORGIVEN (Netflix, iTunes, Amazon)
The film that revitalized Clint Eastwood as a talent and Westerns as a genre, Unforgiven is the place to start if you’ve never seen a single horse opera in your life (then graduate to Sergio Leone). Eastwood directs and stars as a retired gunfighter who must finish one last job taking down the local despotic sheriff Gene Hackman. Eastwood is no superhero; with demons to shake off and cobwebs to match, he’s a more realistic version of his characters from films like High Plains Drifter. A must-see.