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Posted: 5:52 a.m. Sunday, May 18, 2014

Cannes Day 5: 'The Homesman' rules 



By Charles Ealy

American-Statesman staff

This year's Cannes Film Festival has been an up-and-down affair, but actor/director Tommy Lee Jones raised the bar for the Palme d'Or on Sunday with the premiere of "The Homesman."

Jones is one of only two American directors in competition this year, the other being Bennett Miller, who's screening "Foxcatcher" on Monday. But the Texan laid a legitimate claim to the top prize. That does not, however, mean that the jury will recognize it. Last year,  Paolo Sorrentino's brilliant "The Great Beauty" screened in Cannes and went home with no recognition. Then it went on to win the foreign-language Oscar.

"The Homesman" focuses on a hapless reject named George Briggs (Jones) in 1850s Nebraska. He has taken up residence in the home of a man who has gone back East to get a wife. And the neighbors aren't amused. So they throw a stick of dynamite down his chimney, put him on a horse, then put a noose around his neck and tie it to a tree limb. If the horse moves, the guy will be hanged.

Along comes Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), who's riding a walled-up wagon to pick up three frontier women who have lost their minds due to various brutalities they've faced. Pious and single, she is planning a charitable mission to take the women back to civilization (Iowa, in this case), so that they can be properly cared for. And she extracts a promise from the desperate Briggs. If he'll help her on the five-week journey across the Plains to Iowa, then she'll cut him down. A deal is struck, and the journey is underway.

At first, it seems like this is going to be a movie about a pious woman and a gruff character who somehow come together and make a good partnership. That's what's expected in this kind of setup.

But quite a few surprises are in store. This isn't a typical Western. It's an arthouse film about the brutality that frontier women faced. And it doesn't pull any punches.

The secondary roles are played with aplomb by the likes of Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Hailee Steinfeld, Sonja Richter and Meryl Streep. Streep doesn't show up till near the end. She's the wife of a Methodist minister in Iowa, and she has agreed to help nurse the women back to health, if that's possible.

Also showing up in supporting roles are James Spader as a cruel, money-grubbing hotel owner; Tim Blake Nelson as a somewhat deranged loner who tries to run away with one of the insane women; John Lithgow as a preacher who has arranged for the transport of the women; and Jesse Plemons as the husband of one of the mentally ill women. Longtime Texas character actor Barry Corbin also has a small role.

The cinematography captures the landscape of both the countryside as well as the numerous fissures in Jones' face. Campfire scenes are lit beautifully, and many establishing shots show just how vast the frontier is. The movie was actually filmed in northeast New Mexico, and according to Jones and Swank, unexpected snowfall and other unpredictable weather made for some of the toughest challenges in filming.

Still, Swank said at a press conference that the harsh conditions helped the actors get into character. At the end of the day, the cast and crew could go home to a motel and shower and sleep comfortably. But as she pointed out, the people on the frontier had very few comforts.

While Swank brings her typical passion to the role of Mary Bee Cuddy, Jones has the biggest role, and it's clear that he's reveling in it. As Briggs, he has been an outcast for most of his life, and his only hope is to find some kind of future in the West. In a way, "The Homesman" is about turning Briggs into a decent man. There's no tidy conclusion, however, and you have to wonder what Briggs' fate will eventually be. 

But "The Homesman" strays from the typical frontier genre by giving women some of the biggest roles. The strategy works.

It'll be interesting to see the response of the Cannes jury, especially from Jane Campion, who's this year's jury president. The jury will have to weigh the merits of two other standouts at the festival so far -- "Mr. Turner" from British director Mike Leigh and "Winter Sleep" from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. 

The two biggest disappointments in the first part of the festival competition have been Atom Egoyan's "The Captive" and Bertrand Bonello's "Saint Laurent." The opening night film, "Grace of Monaco," which screened out of competition, was a well-noted disaster.

In the middle are Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu," the highly entertaining "Wild Tales" from Argentina's Damian Szifron and "The Wonders" from Italian director Alice Rohrwacher.

Still to come are Bennett's "Foxcatcher," David Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars," the Dardenne brothers' "Two Days, One Night" and several others, including Michel Hazanavicius' "The Search." So the competition is by no means nearing an end.

In the Un Certain Regard sidebar, one of the standouts has been "White God," directed by Hungary's Kornel Mundruczo. It's an allegory about the way people -- and animals -- are treated, and what might happen if those who are oppressed fight back. In this case, it's a band of dogs who have had enough of being rounded up and euthanized. And when they decide to fight back, the results are startling. It, along with "Wild Tales," would make a great choice for Austin's Fantastic Fest later this year.

About Charles Ealy

Charles Ealy writes and edits stories about movies, books and the arts for the Austin American-Statesman.

Send Charles Ealy an email.

 
 

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