At age 68, Tommy Lee Jones is not going gently.
Lately his film roles — in “No Country for Old Men,” “The Company Men,” “In the Valley of Elah” — have found him facing the dark side of human nature (not to mention the darkness at the end of the line) with varying degrees of resistance and resignation.
His choices as a director are even bleaker. He made his big-screen directing debut in 2005 with the angry, violent “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” playing an American rancher transporting his friend’s body to Mexico for burial.
With his sophomore effort, “The Homesman,” Jones gives us a revisionist Western that defies expectations at every turn.
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It’s a genuine art film in the vein of Aussie productions like “The Proposition.” Moreover, “The Homesman” embraces a world view as bleak as anything from Cormac McCarthy.
Hilary Swank is Mary Bee Cuddy, a single woman operating her small farm in the Nebraska Territory of the 1850s. In the opening scene she proposes marriage to her closest neighbor, a fellow eight or nine years her junior. Her arguments are pragmatic rather than romantic.
For her effort Mary Bee is rejected as “homely and bossy.” Well, she is definitely both. But she is also, as she says, “uncommonly alone.”
The plot of “The Homesman” is kicked into gear by three local women, played by Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter and Grace Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter), who all have gone mad during a miserable Nebraska winter.
The causes of their mental breakdowns are varied: crop failures, the diphtheria deaths of children, the peculiar form of stir-craziness generated by flat, empty landscapes under never-ending skies. One woman has thrown her newborn child into a freezing privy. One is catatonic. Another can’t stop shrieking and biting.
Perhaps sensing how close she is to joining them, Mary Bee volunteers to guide these three lost souls across 200 miles of prairie to western Iowa, where a church is willing to take them in and send them along to their families in the East.
Along the way she picks up George Briggs (Jones), a bewhiskered reprobate whom she discovers bound and sitting atop a horse with a rope around his neck. Accused of claim jumping, Briggs has been left to hang by vigilantes. Mary Bee offers him the chance to live and the promise of $300 if he will accompany her and the mad women all the way to Iowa.
This setup (Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver adapted Glendon Swarthout’s novel) promises familiar pleasures. No doubt the three lunatics — imprisoned in a sort of crude gypsy caravan — will break out of their shells of misery. And perhaps the prim and proper Mary Bee and the curmudgeonly Briggs will hit it off after an initial round of antipathy. It’ll be a landlocked “African Queen.”
Sorry, wrong movie. The desperate Mary Bee does set her bonnet for the well-worn Briggs, but he’s not the marrying kind. Moreover, “The Homesman” is unrelentingly grim when it comes to the fates of the three women.
There are the usual Western elements: threatening Kiowa warriors, a frontiersman with rape on his mind, bitterly cold weather. But the film’s mood is less adventurous than eulogistic — these wide-open spaces inspire more revulsion than jubilation. One’s humanity can get lost out here.
Swank was born to play Mary Bee, who looks like a frontier Olive Oyl and harbors a moralistic streak and the nagging fear that she’ll never be a complete woman.
But it’s Jones’ character who grows and changes. Briggs starts out as an opportunist only in it for the money waiting at journey’s end. If it were up to him he’d leave these crazies to fend for themselves.
But as he becomes the one person essential to the survival of all, Briggs begins to take his job seriously. You could say that it redeems him.
As a director, Jones takes an arm’s-length approach, observing and then moving on. There’s no dramatic grandstanding, not much humor. But in its last act “The Homesman” becomes surprisingly moving. There’s still some soul left in Briggs’ angry, whiskey-soaked heart.
The vast prairie captured by Rodrigo Prieto’s camera is sprawling and inhospitable. Sometimes it’s terrifying. Mostly it’s indifferent to the needs of the scrawny humans who stagger across it.
The film is packed with familiar faces in small roles: John Lithgow, Barry Corbin, William Fichtner, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld. One could argue that in a production like this, casting anonymous actors might be more appropriate — wait, is that Meryl Streep? — but even the star power cannot upset the somber mood Jones has worked so hard to establish.
“The Homesman” suggests that, like Mary Bee Cuddy, we are all “uncommonly alone.” At least until we find a reason to look beyond ourselves.
(At the Leawood and Tivoli.)
You can read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated R | Time: 2:00
JONES GOES WEST
Texas-born director/writer/star Tommy Lee Jones talks about five films that influenced him:
▪ “The Ropin’ Fool,” 1922: “It’s almost not a movie, there is very little narrative, but you get a look at what Will Rogers can actually do with a rope. He was a vaudeville actor and a cowboy and an absolute genius with a rope. It’s specially beautiful to me, because ropes have been part of my family’s livelihood for many generations. When I was born, my grandparents got brave enough to take my mother into town to a little clinic. It cost $40, so my Uncle Charlie took his horse to town and entered a roping contest. He won it, and used the money to pay for my birth.”
▪ “Angel and the Badman,” 1947: “The movie is beautiful to look at, and it’s the beginning of John Wayne’s real acting career. This is the movie in which he shows us the beginnings of what he actually became: a master movie actor.”
▪ “The Last Picture Show,” 1971: Ben Johnson won an Oscar for his role as a small-town pool hall owner, but Jones loves him in Westerns, too. “Any movie that gives us the good fortune to observe Ben Johnson on horseback is good to some extent. He was a rodeo world champion and an actor, and he can fill a movie screen just as a figure on the horizon. He shows us, and you see it in ‘The Homesman,’ how these people related to their animals. It wasn’t anthropomorphic or sentimental. They were partners in the struggle for survival.”
▪ “Dreams,” 1990: “There are other good Japanese directors, but (Akira) Kurosawa’s work is very important to me in terms of its composition and movement. ‘Dreams’ is very beautiful, very dreamlike and magical, but it’s as real as the back of your hand. We’ve tried for that in ‘The Homesman.’ George Briggs, when we meet him, staggering around in his underwear after his house has been blasted, his face black from the charcoal, does a little dance you might see on a Kabuki stage in Tokyo. Yet it’s a Western.”
▪ “Unforgiven,” 1992: “I admire everything Clint Eastwood does. I like the way he runs a set. I could sit at his feet and watch him work all day. Which I have done. If you’re asking me about Westerns I like, I’d have to include ‘Unforgiven.’ The movie is entertaining, but there are issues under consideration: law and order, the treatment of women, personal identity. Also, the color is beautiful, and it’s funny. It’s an all-around wonderful movie. If I had a list of heroes, Clint would be on that list.”
| Roslyn Sulcas, The New York Times