MVFF37 Day 1: The Homesman, Men, Women & Children
As far as film festivals go, The Mill Valley Film Festival is a uniquely soul-soothing affair. I’ve covered a fair amount of festivals since I started here at Way Too Indie, and they’re typically full of head-spinning commotion (especially when celebrity guests are involved), but it’s hard to get flustered when you’re surrounded by the gentle, towering redwoods and verdant scenery of Mill Valley.
When the festival’s Opening Night special guests, The Homesman‘s Hilary Swank and Men, Women & Children‘s Jason Reitman, arrived on the red carpet that sat under a beautiful acorn tree, the atmosphere was calm and breezy. Swank noticed immediately: “Well, this is different!”
Home on the Range, Graves in the Dirt
Following her photo op on the red carpet at the beautiful Outdoor Art Club, Swank crossed the street to the Sequoia Theater to introduce The Homesman to a packed house of eager festival-goers. As festival Executive Director Mark Fishkin welcomed Swank to the front of the room, he gushed about how he and his festival programmers saw the film at Cannes and decided they absolutely must showcase the film at the 37th iteration of the festival. Lo and behold, here they were.
A look at the dark side of mid-19th-century frontier America, The Homesman, directed by and co-starring Tommy Lee Jones, sees a stalwart, strong-willed pioneer woman called Cuddy (Swank) partner with a madman claim jumper named Briggs (Jones) to escort three mentally-ill women from Nebraska to Iowa in a sturdy wagon. The premise is straightforward enough, and the film delivers on the expectations of a trek-across-the-frontier Western, but the film’s third act takes a pleasantly unexpected turn that will leave you reeling and disturbed. Oscar talk surrounding Swank is deserved; her physically tough, emotionally vulnerable performance is terrific and one of her best. Jones’ painterly imagery is at times jaw-dropping, though his turn as Briggs isn’t as revelatory as Swank’s.
The film’s most intriguing element is its subtle messaging about gender roles, particularly those of women. Cuddy has money in the bank, owns land, works hard in the fields, and can sing a fine tune. The tragedy is, she can’t find a man to marry her. Hell, she can’t even pay a man to marry her, which she tries to early in the film. Despite her virtues and the townsfolk praising her as “as good as any man”, she’s just not any man’s idea of wife material. “Plain as a tin bucket”, Briggs calls her. The real tragedy is how women still deal with the same gender inequity today.
Intimacy in the Internet Age
At a press conference held prior to the screening of his new film Men, Women & Children, director Jason Reitman dispelled the notion that the film was about anything other than human connection in the digital age. “The film doesn’t deal with social media,” Reitman said. “It deals more with the way we text and the way we search the web. There are plot lines devoted to Ashley Madison; There are not plot lines devoted to Facebook.”
A sprawling cautionary tale about the evils of the internet, Men, Women & Children examines the ways in which the internet affects the way we connect as human beings. From a married couple who get their kicks on romance sites (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt); to a teenager who quit football to hang out with his friends on an online role-playing game (Ansel Elgort); to a mother who goes to scary lengths to monitor her daughter (Jennifer Garner), the spectrum of sad stories is exhaustive. It all becomes a bit overbearing, though: Though the actors in the ensemble cast are wonderful and turn in good work, the characters are too simply-drawn to connect with on a deep level, ironically. This is an honest depiction of the dangers of the digital age, just not a compelling one.
Out on the Town (Center)
After a full night of screenings (which also included Lynn Shelton’s Laggies, which I missed because I have yet to acquire my dream superpower of splitting myself in two), the crowds drove over to Town Center Corte Madera a few miles away for the sparkling Opening Night Gala. There was delicious food (the ridiculous, giant wheel of grana padano cheese was my highlight) and booze, and some bangin’ bluegrass jams from local outfit The Brothers Comatose. I brought my wife with me (always nice to prove to her I’m not as uncool as I appear), and we had a rollicking good time meeting with friends and talking about how disturbing The Homesman was. If you’re in the Bay Area in the next 10 days, come out to Mill Valley and say hello. I’ll be at the movies. (Or at the Mayflower Pub down the road in San Rafael, depending on my mood.)