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It’s November, which means it’s that time of year: Oscar season is officially open. Ducks are now safe, but theater goers? Not so much maybe.
The season is especially serious for actresses since it is generally agreed that this has been one of those incredibly weak years for female leads in movies—or at least the types of leads that could receive a statuette—in America (overseas, the number of quality roles for women is still going strong, or at least much stronger than stateside).
I have recently seen three movies with actresses who have all been mentioned as possibilities for this year’s highest middle-brow prize in thespianic activity.
I was not particularly impressed, sorry to say.
The basic premise of the new oater The Homesman, written by Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver and Tommy Lee Jones (Jones also directed), seems to be that women were basically too weak and, even worse, far too neurotic in nature to have settled the West. Of course, I’m not sure how the West actually got settled if this was indeed true, but there you have it.
Hilary Swank, who is made up to look like the female half of American Gothic, plays Mary Bee Cuddy, one of those women who would probably deliver her baby herself while plowing, cut the umbilical cord, then pick the plow back up and keep on going (if she were pregnant, which she isn’t, since she is, in fact, a virgin). She has a huge farmhouse and lots of land, but can’t seem to get a man to marry her.
When three other farmwives go stark raving mad, mad, mad (insensibly so), she volunteers to take them back East and deliver them to a pastor’s wife who will see they find a place in a mental hospital.
The movie is filled with beautiful vistas of uninhabited plains and vast stretches of vacant land (cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, who was director of photography for The Wolf of Wall Street and Brokeback Mountain). There is something about these people being filmed small against these gigantic backgrounds that does make you admire their fight for existence.
And the basic premise shows promise. It’s clearly defined and the goals are strongly stated.
But the story always seems a bit forced and never to grow out of the situation as organically as one would hope.
Even in the opening scenes when Mary Bee is cruelly turned down by a sheep farmer she asks to marry her, it’s hard to believe that the man would be so stupid as to not recognize the brilliance of the match (he would double the size of his ownings and net worth, and could finally start a family—in fact, when he turns her down, you don’t know whether to be sad for her or be glad she didn’t end up with this idiot for a husband).
His reasoning is that she’s ugly and bossy. Well, bossy I buy, maybe, but as plain as Swank allows herself to become, she is hardly ugly (which may be the real problem here—an actress who doesn’t mind being called plain by everyone as long as she really isn’t).
The early scenes that set up the situation for the wives and their mental states seem clunky and not always easy to follow. There’s a lot of jumping around in time and it all seems rather choppy. And it feels as if it’s taking a bit too long to get the story going.
In fact, the movie never really takes off until Mary Bee meets the grizzled George Briggs (Jones), who has been left to hang after he squatted on someone’s land. She talks him into helping her take the women east and so the plot’s afoot. He’s playing a type, the cantankerous old coot, but Jones has so much fun playing him, he brings an incredible amount of energy to the story.
Their trek across the wilderness is the strongest part of the story and makes one hope that the whole thing might end up going somewhere satisfying, if familiar, in the end (I mean, it basically is one of those buddy road trip type thingies).
But then something happens two thirds of the way through. And I’m really serious here. SOMETHING happens and this something, when it does, drives the movie in a totally different direction, but not in a particularly wise one, I would suggest (the lead up to this event is also unwieldy and even embarrassing—Mary Bee asks George not to shame her, but all I could think was, too late, the screenplay’s already done that).
Normally, I might celebrate a non-conformist way of structuring a film as the filmmakers did here. The problem is that this event isn’t remotely believable and Mary Bee hasn’t been developed to make this choice of hers realistic (and I have yet to talk to someone who bought it).
And now we suddenly have a new central character. It began as Mary Bee’s story and now, out of nowhere, it becomes George’s. Again, I might tip my hat to trying to do something different, but the problem here is that George doesn’t really have a story, or a journey, or a character arc.
I mean, the whole turn is mind boggling, resulting in a final act that just keeps going absolutely nowhere including a unnecessary scene at a hotel in the middle of an expanse of emptiness that seems to keep its upper windows nailed shut (the place catches fire and all the guests are caught upstairs, but no one seems to be able to, or even consider, jumping out to safety—c’mon, guys, it’s only the second floor, for god’s sake).
And the story keeps on going and going and going, but not to anywhere of any clear importance.
Swank plays the lead with that tomboyish swagger that she brings to her best roles (and whom almost always seem to get punished as a result). She doesn’t really bring anything interesting to the role, but I’m not sure that ultimately the character is that interesting as it is.
The cast is then filled out with a bunch of people you know from somewhere or other, including John Lithgow as a pastor and James Spader as the owner of the hotel.
For some reason, Meryl Streep is also in the movie. She plays the pastor’s wife that the women are delivered to, but she’s surprisingly bland and feels lost when it comes to finding a character. She doesn’t really do anything with the part that a character actress like, say, Margo Martindale, couldn’t have done and couldn’t have done better by virtue of not being an A-list actress with eighteen Oscar nominations.
In Wild, a woman goes on a 1,100 mile trek across the Pacific Coast Trail. Why? Well, I’m not sure if truth be told. It has something to do with her mother dying from cancer and her becoming a drug and sex addict and her husband, quite understandably, filing for divorce.
But exactly what the connection was between everything didn’t quite…connect for me.
It’s based on a true story and a memoir written by the central character Cheryl Strayed. Perhaps in the book the dots are more clearly connected, but for me, the film was just a series of scenes of someone walking and walking and walking and walking and walking, encountering various people here and there (some nice, some not so), intermingled with various flashbacks…kind of a full of sound and fury thing, but sorta signifying nothing as far as I could tell.
I don’t want to be cruel. Strayed did go through something dark and difficult and this trek apparently did help her find her way out the other end of the tunnel. And my hats off to her for just hiking the damn thing, no matter the reason. I certainly couldn’t have.
But I just felt a little lost and most of the time I didn’t really know why I was watching the story, what I was supposed to get out of it.
The screenplay is by Strayed and Nick Hornby (who has shown solid screenwriting ability with such films as About a Boy and An Education). It’s directed by French Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee, who co-wrote and directed the wonderful coming of age dysfunctional family drama C.R.A.Z.Y. and helmed the surprisingly effective The Young Victoria.
Both of those films have much stronger screenplays, though. When presented with something like Dallas Buyer’s Club and now Wild, his directing expertise can only do so much and he can’t really overcome a derivative and bland screenplay (the only reason DBC resonates is the subject matter and the go for broke performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto).
Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed. She pouts, she cries, she screams in frustration, she looks off into the distance and ponders, she gets frightened, she takes drugs and has sex with strangers (that are filmed to seem erotic rather than humiliating).
For many, she gives a mesmerizing performance. For me, this lack of a connection, a real and deep reason for what she is doing, a clear journey, a strong arc, traps her into not being able to really delve into the character. She’s not really given a way to dig below the surface.
And she never made me forget that every night after shooting she probably went back to the comfort of her trailer or motel room.
With Thomas Sadoski, the sad faced news director in Newsroom, as Strayed’s sad faced husband, and Laura Dern as her mother (Dern seems far too young to be Strayed’s mother here, though I suspect the problem is really that Witherspoon is far too old to play her daughter).
Perhaps it was all just a bit too, too new agey for me, too much a crystals and pyramids tale without the crystals and pyramids. Strayed’s story has obviously meant a lot to a lot of people and it’s more than quite possible that those who have read the book will find more in the film that I did.
But though the character had a clear outer direction and end point to go for (the PCT), the film didn’t provide her with clear inner ones.
I suspect that the filmmakers might have feared this because it all ends with a voice over from Strayed after reaching her journey’s end, one of those voice overs that is supposed to tell us whatever we were supposed to have gotten out of the story since we probably weren’t going to get it on our own. Unfortunately, it’s also one of those explanatory voice overs that never really explained anything to me.
Because of this, you have every right, and probably should, pay little heed to anything I have to say about the film. But the reason I left is that I could not for the life of me understand what Ullman was trying to do here.
At the time the play was written, there were three major playwrights who dramatized the battle of the sexes. For Henrik Ibsen, the relationship between men and women was a social issue. For George Bernard Shaw, it was the outgrowth of evolutionary inevitability driven by something he called the life force.
But for Strindberg, the battle of the sexes was a knock down drag out fight worthy of Ali and Liston. Both sides vied for power and would stop at nothing to gain control over the opposite sex. Sometimes the female won (as in The Father), sometimes the male (as in Miss Julie).
When I think of Miss Julie and the way the central characters interact (the high born daughter of a nobleman and her father’s low born valet), I think of the classic scene from The Postman Always Rings Twice where Lana Turner’s character applies lipstick to her pouty mouth and then drops it for John Garfield’s character to pick up. He does, but instead of returning it to her as she planned, he holds it out for her to come to him. She does, takes it, walks away, but refuses to let him have the upper hand by continuing applying her makeup with deep come fuck me eyes.
This is how I see Miss Julie.
But for Ullman, the story is driven more by the neuroses of a Woody Allen film, both characters filled with guilt and self doubt, whining and wailing about their lot in life.
The scene that finally drove me from the theater is the one immediately following the two characters having sex. In Ullman’s version, John, the valet, leaves the room of consummation filled with despair and inner turmoil over what he has done, terrified of what might happen if his master finds out and regretting immediately what happened.
In the play, in contrast, Julie starts out having all the power in the relationship since she is a member of the ruling class. The two spar for control until they end up in a room alone and the inevitable happens. When John leaves the room, his attitude is “I nailed here, I nailed her good”, relishing in the upper hand he now has over his conquest. Julie leaves the room destroyed, having lost all the power she once had.
In the end, I fully admit it could be me. I could be one of those people unable to accept a new and insightful vision of an old classic. And if so, I plead guilty.
But I just didn’t get it and didn’t see the point of sticking around not getting it for the hour remaining.
With Jessica Chastain as Julie, Colin Farrell as John and Samantha Morton as Kathleen the cook who is in love with John. Farrell brings his sexy vibrancy to the role and one can’t look away from his dark, piercing looks. Chastain does her best, but since her character no longer makes a lot of sense, there isn’t a lot she could do (Farrell has the same problem). Morton perhaps comes off best in the quietest role, who finds meaning in life through religion.