19 December 2014 | 3xHCCH
Bleak But Bountiful
December 19, 2014
A homesman is someone tasked to bring people back to their homes. In this film, the people that needed safe transport are three mentally- disturbed women. Mary Bee McCuddy, a plain but hardy spinster, volunteered to be their homesman. Along the way, she rescues a old man Thomas Briggs from being hung by vigilantes and conscripts him to help her with her mission in exchange for saving his life. Together, they gather the three ladies and escort them from Nebraska homes across the dangerous Midwest prairie to a safe haven in Iowa.
Hilary Swank is an actress who had already won a couple of Oscars for playing strong women who had taken on masculine roles in life -- Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry" and Maggie Fitzgerald in "Million Dollar Baby". As Mary Bee McCuddy, a pioneer lady who bravely accepts a task only men are expected to do, Swank again goes on the same award-baiting path. The movie worked so well when Swank was on screen. She was absolutely compelling in this offbeat role as if this was written with her in mind. The movie was not the same when her character was not there.
Tommy Lee Jones is one actor who, as of late, had seemingly been confined to playing curmudgeonly and cantankerous old men, and his Briggs here is not any different. This film is only Jones' second directorial effort since his critically-acclaimed debut in "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" back in 2005. As director, he was very generous to his lead female star Swank, and always gave way to let her shine. As actor, he does consistently as he is expected but this role of a grumpy old outlaw seems too familiar for him already. He wisely played Briggs with some self-deprecating humor to break the tendency of the story to become monotonously bleak.
There were some remarkable cameos from other award-winning or nominated stars in much smaller roles. John Lithgow is his usual capable self playing the Reverend Dowd who reluctantly sends McCuddy off on her task. Hailee Steinfeld plays 16-year old Tabitha Hutchinson to whom Briggs offers a surprising proposal. James Spader, in his usual over-the-top style, plays condescending hotel owner Aloysius Duffy. And last, but definitely not the least, none other than THE Meryl Streep plays perfectly kind and hospitable Altha Carter, who runs the institution in Iowa the women are headed for. These actors appear on screen for only ten minutes or so, but they leave a lasting impression.
The narrative may have been slow and desolate . However, the unusual situations, disturbing imagery, startling story developments and committed performances by the cast all keep our attention riveted. The cinematography with the muted colors worked well with the windswept landscape of its setting, as much a character in itself. The costumes and production design rang true to its mid-19th century time period. The haunting and unsettling musical score create an atmosphere of bitter emptiness. The insufferably miserable topic is clearly not for everyone. But for those who decide to give it a chance, the rewards will be satisfying. 7/10.