The Homesman – Three women driven mad by life on the American frontier are transported hundreds of miles to be cared for by Meryl Streep; that is the set-up of Tommy Lee Jones’ strange, melancholy mid-Western The Homesman. Jones and Hilary Swank co-star as the unlikely duo driving the women from Nebraska to Iowa. She is Mary Bee Cuddy, a tough but lonely woman who steps up to transport the women when none of their husbands will, and he is George Briggs, the man she rescues from a hanging after making him swear to help her.
Jones’ vision of the frontier is a fairly common one, the smallness of their wagon is conveyed through steady, distant shots that show a stark, endless flatland, and bursts of violence impede their progress. The movie’s only encounter with Native Americans is a squeamish one, but it’s built more on Briggs’ fear of the unknown rather than giving in to more racist Western tendencies that seek to justify that fear. When he defiles a burial site to steal a buffalo skin blanket, Cuddy is appropriately outraged.
The most interesting thing about The Homesman is its attempt at an overt feminist narrative, which keep it afloat over some awkward pacing issues; Cuddy rescues Briggs, and her distress is internalized, and unable to be saved. One of the women’s madness is linked directly to the repeated sexual assaults she suffered from her husband, and the movie treats them all seriously instead of using them as background noise. There is a shot at a saloon with prostitutes decorating the background while men speak and play poker, but it’s the only time the movie fully succumbs to more misogynistic genre trappings. Grade: C+
Thou Wast Mild and Lovely – Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is a film of great power, one whose visual rhythms create a deceptively beautiful world besieged by the sloppiness of human lust and violence. When a hired hand (Joe Swanberg) arrives on a rural farm to work for the summer, he removes his wedding ring in the car, anticipating a potential seasonal fling. He finds it with Sarah (Sophie Traub), though he doesn’t realize he’s also stepped into the middle of a demented game with her and the farmer (Robert Longstreet).
Though that sounds like a promising set-up for a thriller, Decker’s interest on driving the plot forward is minimal. Instead, the film is filled with elemental dread. Her camera is jolted with life from the beginning, as Sarah and the farmer frolic in a field while tossing a beheaded chicken between them. Though their relationship seems like an incestuous one, Longstreet’s abusive, menacing patriarch later denies that she is his daughter. All of this is revealed gradually; as Swanberg’s character suspects the job is not as straightforward as he thought, Decker flashes images of bloodied, beaten faces in a barn and cuts to Sarah singing a song beneath a wall full of empty hats. In just 76 lyrical, disturbing minutes, Decker announces herself as an intriguing new voice in American movies. (I can’t wait to Butter on the Latch, her other feature released this year). Grade: A-
Happy Christmas – Happy Christmas is only the second Joe Swanberg movie I’ve seen after last year’s Drinking Buddies, and it looks and feels like a smaller movie in nearly every way. It’s also about a group of troubled young people and their relationship problems, but most of it is set within a single home. Jenny (Anna Kendrick) moves in with her brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and his author wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) after a break-up, disrupting their marriage with her heavy drinking and carelessness.
The movie gets off to a shaky start, but thankfully the awkward framing and inconsistent acting in the first 10 minutes doesn’t last. Swanberg eventually finds his bearings, and the movie is a warm and often funny examination of a premise that absolutely did not interest me at all. Jenny and Kelly’s dynamic was my favorite thing about it, especially their attempt at writing a steamy medieval romance novel. Lynskey is particularly great at showing Kelly’s growing frustrations with her career, though the movie thankfully never forces a third act confrontation where she either gets all or nothing. As great as she is, though, she and the others don’t hold a candle to Swanberg’s son Jude, who gives one of the greatest toddler performances I’ve ever seen in a movie. Grade: C
The Theory of Everything- James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking biopic is a terribly misguided attempt at separating the man from his world-renowned work. Rather than explore the intersection of Hawking’s genius with his personal life, the script just includes simple, shallow remarks about it and then goes off in several undeveloped directions.
Eddie Redmayne is terrific at conveying the tragedy in Hawking’s eyes as a motor neuron disease slowly takes away his ability to move and speak. However, the movie doesn’t really know what it wants to say about him; the central draw is supposed to be Hawking’s relationship to his wife Jane (Felicity Jones), but she isn’t given anything interesting to do or say. Jones tries her hardest to create a character out of almost nothing, but her and Redmayne are trapped in an unfocused story that fails to take off at almost every turn. Grade: D
John Wick– John Wick has the most well-executed action sequences I’ve seen all year. Chad Stahelski, the director, is known more as a stunt coordinator, and it shows in the way he often keeps the camera at a distance and lets the actors’ physicality dominate a scene. That proximity and the precision of the editing gives a kinetic fury to the title character’s quest to avenge his murdered puppy.
Keanu Reeves, Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane play their respective badasses just tongue-and-cheek enough to keep John Wick somewhat interesting in between its extraordinary set pieces. The best of these is a multi-layered nightclub shootout, where the dark neon visual tint helps mask the ferocious consistency with which John Wick dispatches nearly everyone in his sight. This is the movie I thought Only God Forgives was going to be. Grade: B