Homesman, The (2014): Tommy Lee Jones’ Second Western, Starring Hilary Swank

the_homesman_posterNow that Clint Eastwood has stopped making Westerns, actor-director Tommy Lee Jones, alongside Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall, may be the only proponents of that all but vanished genre.

“The Homesman” is Lee Jones’ second Western as a director, following his impressive debut, “The Three Burial of Melquiades Estrada,” of 2005.  Both pictures world-premiered at the Cannes Film Fest, in Competition.

 

“The Homseman” is not as interesting or original as “The Three Burials,” but it’s also not as violent.  A more conventional structure and femme-centric tale, featuring Hilary Swank, may make it more accessible and more commercial, once it finds a U.S. distributor.

the_homesman_2_jones_swankThis road  saga, functionally scripted by Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, and Wesley Oliver, is based on the 1989 novel by Glendon Swarthout, who is perhaps better known to movie audiences as the writer of “The Shootist,” which became John Wayne’s elegiac swan song, in 1976.

Lee Jones plays George Briggs, a grizzled rascal saved from the hangman on the condition that he will accompany a group of women from Nebraska to Iowa.  (not just an ordinary group of women, but a trio of mentally troubled (exhibiting varying degrees of insanity) femmes, whose harrowing experiences of death or loss have made them burdensome victims, dependent on those around them.

the_homesman_1_jones_swankIn quick but sharp strokes, we are introduced to the three femmes, played by Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, and Grace Gummer (Meryl Streep’s real-life daughter), and their shattering and damaging experiences (seen in flashbacks).

The tale’s lead, however, is not Lee Jones or any of the crazy women, but Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a God-fearing, selfless, solitary woman, who is described as “plain as a tin pail.”  Harsh but not inhuman, Cuddy is George’s savior, and as such she insists on transporting the women to safety—despite his objections.

the_homesman_7_swankIt’s a credit to Lee Jones as a helmer that, unlike other actors turn directors, he doesn’t indulge his cast and there is no over-acting or self-pitying by any of the four women.  Remarkably, he also steers clear from Hollywood’s visual clichés of mental illness.

At first, Cuddy comes across as a severe, humorless, harsh nails woman, channeling perhaps Katharine Hepburn in her “old maid” period, in films like the 1951 Huston classic, “The African Queen.” In fact, one can see “The Horseman” cast with John Wayne and Hepburn, if it were made earlier.

As the tale unfolds, we get to known Cuddy’s backstory as well as her anxieties as a single woman out in the wilderness, elements that humanize her persona, showing some vulnerable facets.

the_homesman_6_jonesTaciturn and strong-minded as Cuddy, George keeps mostly to himself–the two make an interesting odd couple. For reasons that cannot be mentioned here (or else spoil crucial points of the plot), there is an effort on the part of one of them to consummate the bond and become a couple.

The last reel contains one truly unexpected event, which accentuates the tragic tone of the story and leaves a strong impact on the rest of the tale.

As noted, all the performances are effective and understated, including the “looney” women, who after initial outbursts of panic and hysteria, settle down into a quieter behavior.

Respectful of the source material, and the fact that he is part of an ensemble dominated by women, Lee Jones the actor immerses himself into his part without displaying any cantankerous mannerisms or eccentrci conduct.  As a result, he offers a striking portrait of an anti-hero, operating in a harsh and unforgiving Western landscape that is devoid of the glamor, adventurism, romance, and heroism often associated with the genre.

In a year in which there are not many strong lead female performances, Hilary Swank may score her third Best Actress Oscar nomination.

the_homesman_8“The Homesman” benefits from the sharp, often lyrical imagery of Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, and evocative score by composer Marco Beltrani, mostly a combination of piano and string themes.