Dec 01

“The Homesman”: Mental Health Issues in the Old West

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones are getting kudos for their roles in the new female-centric Western called The Homesman, directed and co-written by Jones. The film, adapted from a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout, is also getting some decent reviews.

The official description of the film:

When three women living on the edge of the American frontier are driven mad by harsh pioneer life, the task of saving them falls to the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). Transporting the women by covered wagon to Iowa, she soon realizes just how daunting the journey will be, and employs a low-life drifter, George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), to join her. The unlikely pair and the three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) head east, where a waiting minister and his wife (Meryl Streep) have offered to take the women in. But the group first must traverse the harsh Nebraska Territories marked by stark beauty, psychological peril and constant threat.

Other people met along the way include “an opportunistic cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson)…and an unctuous innkeeper (James Spader), unrealistically holding out for a better class of clientele than one usually finds on the lone prairie” (Pete Vonder Haar, Village Voice).

You can view the trailer below:

The Mental Health Issues

Peter Debruge, Variety, comments on attitudes toward mental health issues back then and now:

‘People like to talk about death and taxes, but when it comes to crazy, they stay hushed up,’ notes a townsperson in the hardscrabble Nebraska Territories where the seemingly linear but surprisingly unpredictable story begins. That amateur philosopher’s observation is as true today as it might have been in 1854, which means instead of rehashing the same stale Old West stories that have all but exhausted the genre, ‘The Homesman’…has the unique advantage of exploring a relatively overlooked chapter of America’s past.

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “The three demented women include a catatonic, doll-clutching 19-year-old (Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer) banished by her husband after losing her baby; a violent schizophrenic (Miranda Otto) who threw her newborn infant down the hole of an outhouse; and a hysterical immigrant (Sonja Richter) who lost her mother in the snow and now spends her days screaming for an exorcism from the devil.”

Selected Reviews

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “Few will regret having seen ‘The Homesman,’ and yet it’s not exactly an enjoyable experience. The film occupies that peculiar space that many of us would prefer to believe doesn’t exist, a movie that’s worthy but often inert, by turns enriching and enervating: a good boring movie.”

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “‘The Homesman’ is both a captivating western and a meticulous, devastating feminist critique of the genre.”

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon: “A wrenching, relentless and anti-heroic western that stands among the year’s most powerful American films. Not everyone will like ‘The Homesman,’ but if you see it you won’t soon forget it.”

Aug 15

“Hope Springs”: Can Intensive Couples Therapy Help?

The new movie Hope Springs, starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, as introduced by film critic Carrie Rickey,

Kay and Arnold have been wed 31 years. They sleep in separate bedrooms and live parallel lives. When she reaches across the canyon of the breakfast table, he retreats further into his armored shell. When he makes a joke, she hears it as a personal insult. She is miserable. He is oblivious. Can this marriage be saved?

Check out the trailer:

If the above clip suggests a comedy, this is not how it in fact plays out. IMDB labels it both comedy and drama, but the latter is more accurate, I think. This is serious business, a marriage in serious trouble, and a load of serious therapy complete with assigned “sexercises” is headed their way.

And by a load of therapy, I do mean a lot more than most couples would initially seek. Whereas many couples eventually try a weekly hour or so, few would plunk down big money to fly across the country for week-long intensive counseling with a guy who’s written a relevant book that one spouse found in a store after reading a few words on the cover.

Speaking of self-help books, although the book written by Steve Carell’s Dr. Feld and discovered by Kay pre-therapy is not real, his recommendation of Sex Tips For Straight Women From a Gay Manby Dan Anderson, who’s gay, and Maggie Berman, who’s straight—is.

As a shrink Steve Carell plays it clinical and earnest. Arnold’s imagining (in the trailer) of Dr. Feld speaking to his spouse the way he addresses them in therapy is spot-on. Ian Buckwalter of NPR: “Presiding over everything is Carell, who never hams it up as Dr. Feld, a vision of Zen calm with a beatific grin and a voice so soothing it’s like auditory Xanax.”

In addition to Streep and Jones, another of the film’s best features is the realism behind their issues, including how difficult it can be not only to address those issues but to achieve progress. The AARP review emphasizes the film’s significance in this regard and offers some relevant statistics about married couples’ intimacy issues:

Hope Springs is a cinematic breakthrough. It’s the first film I know of that addresses the sexuality of older couples head-on. (I’m ruling out Something’s Gotta Give as too farcical.) In the case of Hope Springs, Kay and Arnold’s sexuality has subsided below a slow burn: They’re marooned in a sexless marriage, a condition by no means unusual in this country. According to the landmark Sex in America survey, about 2 percent of married adults never have sex, and 12 percent are sexual only a few times a year. For argument’s sake, let’s say that means 5 percent of couples do it never or almost never. That’s 1 couple in 20, so pretty much every older adult knows people in a sexless (or nearly so) relationship….

Back to the question of can this marriage be saved? Carrie Rickey ( recognizes that director David Frankel is actually more concerned with asking how?

…Feld likens his marital tune-ups to the doctors who repair a deviated septum: Got to break the nose in order to fix it.

As the wife whose feelings are right on the surface and the husband whose are in a lockbox, Streep and Jones earned my empathy without asking for it. There are few actors whose body English is as eloquent.

And as a fly on the wall for their characters’ couples therapy and homework, I simultaneously cringed, cried, and cracked up.

Lisa SchwarzbaumEntertainment Weekly, cites the “exquisitely painful, realistic therapy sessions” in her review, and notes that Dr. Feld’s work with the couple “ought to have audiences squirming with uncomfortable self-recognition.”

Justin ChangVariety: “…(I)ts key achievement is its engagement with the mechanics of therapy, the indignities of the aging process, and the characters’ desperate, fumbling attempts to recover something that may be irretrievably lost — scarcely the most fashionable or marketable movie topics, yet scrutinized here at length and without apology.”

In sum, it’s a movie well worth seeing—but only if you don’t mind a good bit of realism along with your romance.