The Homesman Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Tommy Lee Jones’ fourth film as a director is his third Western, and like fellow actors-turned-directors Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner, he demonstrates a clear affection for and understanding of the genre. The Homesman is more traditional than Jones’ last Western, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and it can be a little stolid at times. But it also uses a familiar genre format to subtly subvert conventions, blending the old-fashioned and the progressive into a story that can be unexpectedly powerful.
Jones stars as drifter and ne’er-do-well George Briggs, who’s introduced being violently ejected from the Nebraska ranch where he’s been illegally squatting. Tied to a tree and left for dead, George is rescued by Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a rare independent woman on the frontier, who’s been charged with transporting three mentally unstable women (played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) to Iowa so they can be returned to their families on the East Coast.
The dynamic between the pious, dedicated Mary Bee and the irascible, opportunistic George is the stuff of a thousand buddy movies, but Jones (both as director and actor) treats it with enough delicacy to feel genuine, and Swank brings her typical determined strength to the role of Mary Bee. George agrees to help with Mary Bee’s mission in exchange for freedom and money, and his eventual warming to her cause is predictable but affecting. What’s less predictable is Mary Bee’s character arc, which takes an unexpected turn about half an hour before the movie ends, giving the preceding story an extra resonance.
That twist ties in with the movie’s sympathetic perspective on the difficulty of pioneer life for women; while Mary Bee appears to be self-sufficient, the women that she and George are transporting have been completely broken by the pressures of living on the frontier. Jones and his co-screenwriters (working from a novel by Glendon Swarthout) treat them with more respect than they get from any of the male characters, showing the brutal living conditions they were forced to endure. Even Mary Bee can’t escape the cruel expectations placed on women in this particular time and place. Her ultimate response to those expectations is haunting and jarring, although it sets the movie’s final act adrift. The pacing is a bit off even before that, and too many of the quiet moments end up inert, but at its best, The Homesman offers a welcome addition to the contemporary Western canon.