The Homesman

I will start by saying I have always liked Tommy Lee Jones. I think he may have overreached his talents in this film. Trying to direct and star in your own adapted screenplay is an ambitious task for a first time director, even for an industry veteran like Jones. Unfortunately, the Homesman does not number among his greater accomplishments.

A period drama set in the Old West, a 31 year old spinster (Hilary Swank) is tasked with the delivery of three women who have gone mad – privately, there was no epidemic of madness – to a church that would arrange for their travel back east from Nebraska, as their husbands could no longer care for them. This is a flawed premise from the outset, but, at least in part due to a seasoned cinematographic look, I gave the film the benefit of the doubt. For the first half hour, it looks and feels like a Clint Eastwood film, with some Coen brothers’ quirkiness, except that everyone in the film looks too clean to be living in the desert. When the storyline takes a dark turn, revealing the descent of the three women into madness (a combined ordeal that lasted less than five minutes on the beat sheet, and can be traced to failures or crises of motherhood of one form or another), Jones reveals himself as a drunkard, a criminal and a condemned man, as well the man who would save the four women from traversing the Nebraska to Iowa landscape alone. From this point, the film focuses primarily on the failures of all of the women in the film – a trio of mute madwomen tethered to the inside of a wooden trailer pulled by two mules who are incapable even of using the toilet on their own – and flattens their respective predicaments into opaque “female issues” to do with dead and unborn children, absent mothers and distant or abusive husbands. The women occasionally participate in the narrative progression, but only as interceptors or reflectors of Jones’ self-directed activity. Swank’s character, who is initially presented as a strong, independently wealthy woman from New York is ultimately only focused on her lack of a husband, and anything more interesting about her is relegated to absent-minded musings about trees, or feeding water to a doll with a thimble as a means of reaching out to the youngest of her charges, a 19 year old girl who lost her daughters to disease. Again, the glimpsed stories behind each of the characters betray a series of missed opportunities for conveying the depth, darkness and even depravity of desert life on the Frontier.

As I am not really keen on panning the first feature film of a man whose work I respect, I will keep this review short, and say only that I was surprised by the casual racism against natives, who were also mute, except when whooping like monkeys, and appeared onscreen only to have their dead desecrated, or to be slaughtered in anecdotes about the US “Dragoons”. I was also surprised by the unapologetic flattening of all of the female characters in service of enriching the overall life experience of the central male lead, and disappointed that, despite the careful pacing and stunning cinematography, the film feels like an homage to some of the directors Jones has done his best work with, rather than reflecting his own distinctive voice. While I am not keen on panning the film, I make no apologies for the sexism or racism in it. I believe, however, that it doesn’t come so much from a place of intent (or Jones would be rapidly dispatched from the “people whose work I respect” list), so much as from a lack of attention to detail. Had Jones given more of the film over to character study – in the style of the two directors he already seems to have borrowed so heavily from – or elected to simplify the storyline sufficiently that helpless women and a voiceless minority enemy weren’t necessary to better “dress” the leading man, the Homesman would not have suffered from the ailments brought on by their clumsy handling.

Having said all of this, I hope he continues to direct, but I think he might be better to leave the writing and the lead role to other people, so that he can focus on realizing his next story in his own way.

Red Army

I remember growing up with the USSR described as being “behind the Iron Curtain”. My child’s mind imagined a whole section of Europe, cordoned off with iron mesh like the curtain in front of the fireplace at my grandfather’s house. One side was East, one side was West. What came out from behind the curtain was a mix of fact and fantasy, packaged in such a way as to reaffirm the New World’s faith in democracy and free-market capitalism, while glorifying their enemies just enough to perpetuate the threat. Soviets were communists, they were freakishly strong and smart and ruthless and relentless, but they were also, always, two steps behind the West as far as we knew on our side of the Curtain. I grew up with this polarity, though the Soviet Union was already on a downward trajectory politically, and remember the images of the USSR under Gorbachev, and the string of leaders before him whose pronouncements of leadership were followed abruptly by their obituaries. I also grew up in Canada, and Canadians take hockey very seriously, so the Soviets were widely regarded with a mix of ire and awe as the team to beat. As much as I was aware of all of these things, the extent of the impact that the profound difference in ideology between East and West was having on the residents on both sides of the Iron Curtain was only really brought sharply into focus by this film, and, of course, only in the limited arena of hockey.

Interestingly though, if unsurprising, there was little distinction between the realms of sports and politics in Soviet Russia, and the Red Army hockey team, established by Stalin, were seen as national heroes, all of them also serving as officers in the Army. Stalin and his predecessors saw hockey as a way of bringing people together, socially and politically, in a way that was advantageous to the State.

For director Gabe Polsky, the American son of Russian immigrant parents, Red Army is an expression of his curiosity about his roots, and his angle is both gentle and informative. Coming from a sympathetic place as a filmmaker, and young enough to not be affected by the rhetorical Cold War hangover, Red Army is a look through the Iron Curtain with fresh eyes. While the heroes’ darker sides are never really closely examined, the insights into the nature of the Soviet regime and its permeating ideology whose depth and breadth of influence rivaled that of the West in every way are enlightening. Soviet collectivism was being cultivated with the same enthusiasm as American exceptionalism, and the Red Army hockey team lead by Slawa Fetisov were among the first to pull back the Curtain and penetrate both worlds.

A third of the film was dedicated to the training rituals of the Red Army hockey team, the same training regimen that was shrouded in secrecy was even more elaborate, intensive and bizarre than even the rumours suggested. Coach Anatoly Tarasov trained his players from childhood, living with them eleven months of the year, and training four times a day for hours at a stretch. A committed student of the sport, as well as a gifted teacher, Tarasov’s diligence was matched only by his curiosity and enthusiam. After studying the dancers’ training regimen at the Bolshoi, Tarasov would return with an all-new sequence of skating manouevres designed to condition the athletes’ agility, control and precision. He studied the behaviour of bears, and would have players perform freestyle breakfalls on ice for hours at a time. Unlike his successor, Viktor Tikhonov, who was widely criticized by the players for being too brutal, Tarasov was widely viewed as a father figure who recognized the talents in each boy from childhood and invested his time, skill and patience in cultivating a team dynamic that made the best use of each player. The style he encultured was one where his players were intimately familiar with each other, and spent so much time on the ice together, their movements were a languid latticework of passes and a progressive, persistent and adaptable offense. It was this natural teamwork and ability to move smoothly between defensive and offensive manoeuvres that stymied the US and Canadian players, whose individualistic style of play lacked the latent cohesion of their Russian counterparts.

Tarasov’s books on hockey, of which he wrote many, were on the bedside tables of every boy who aspired to play for Russia. Due to a political restructuring in 1977, Tarasov was replaced with former hockey player, Latvian coach and KGB agent Viktor Tikhonov. The Red Army players never connected with the brutal Tikhonov, and, although he lead the Soviet team through its most dominant series of victories, they were more deeply connected to Tarasov and credit him with much of their success. One of the players is quoted in the film as saying “If I ever need a heart transplant I want Tikhonov’s. He’s never used his.” The relationship between Tikhonov and the team that ultimately lead the Soviets to their greatest success is central to the film, and the bonds that formed between the central players – Slawa Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Kutrov, Alexei Kasatanov, and legendary goalie Vladislav Tretiak – were made stronger by the common enemy who lead them to victory.

Slawa Fetisov, the Red Army team captain through the 80s, is the central character, and his charisma is tempered with the uncomfortable awareness that he now sits as Putin’s Minister of Sport and oversaw the Sochi Olympics. The ties between politics, sport and patriotism remain steadfast. The latter part of the film is dedicated to the Glasnost years, and the early days of the first Russian players to play for the NHL. Although anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s will remember the controversies around defecting players and stringent Soviet control of players traded to American teams, what Polsky’s Red Army shows of the period are a small number of seasoned hockey veterans who are as close as brothers negotiating for the best possible scenarios for themselves and their families in the lead-up to Soviet collapse, and whose sporting language did not translate any better than their native Russian in the West. Unpopular for political reasons, and feeling the weight of the years of rivalry from their new American teammates (none of whom had faced them in the Olympics, as professional players had not yet been allowed to compete), one of the most poignant images in the film is the face of a 31 year old Slawa Fetisov, in his first season playing for the New Jersey Devils as he is interviewed by an American sports journalist. “Don’t you think American style hockey is just more fun?” Fetisov’s long silence, coupled with the unmaskable sadness on his face spoke volumes about the alienation faced by the Russian players as they left their homes, pedestals and constant praise and victory for unfamiliar tactics, the disdain of hockey fans and isolation from their teammates. The promise of the American dream was very different on delivery.

It is worth mentioning that Fetisov, who graced us with his presence at Cannes, and gave us a brief introduction to the film, as well as a brief history of his early life – asserting that the Soviet dream shared a parallel with the American, and that his rise to fame and glory from the slums of impoverished Moscow was a testament to the opportunites offered by the Soviet system as well as the warmth of its embrace – is now, in addition to his illustrious political career and his reinstatement as an officer in the military, playing hockey again. Why? Because even at 51, Fetisov can still skate better backwards than anyone else can skate forwards.

Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales)

Damian Szifron’s collection of black-comedic vignettes drew cheers from the crowd at Cannes. This can be a dubious honour, as the audience is fickle and as much as walking out of a film in an indignant huff is a “thing”, cheering wildly for mediocre movies is equally, if confusingly, prevalent. In this particular case, however, the crowd’s enthusiasm was well deserved. Not only was it a solid film in its own right, but for a late-ish séance it was great fun to watch on the big screen. There is something very special about watching two thousand people, dressed to the nines and giggling like they are at a sleepover.

Relatos Salvajes‘ recalls the short-film compendium format from the 80s and early 90s: Really Weird Tales, Tales from the Crypt, Cat’s Eye, Creepshow. The stories are unrelated except for their shared eccentricity – a road-rage induced showdown leaves two strangers locked forever in a lovers’ embrace, a city planner whose life is undone one piece at a time by parking infractions, a friendly chat between passengers on an airline reveals a twisted revenge plot involving everyone on the plane, a wedding from hell between two people bent on proving they deserve each other – and a dark brand of comedy that revels in the macabre and seals its central characters’ fates in vomit, blood and rat poison. Higher production value than a grindhouse film, and a little more high-brow, Relatos Salvajes is the best date movie of the festival so far. If it’s playing late on a Friday, take your girl or your guy to the drive-in.