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Cannes 2014 review: The Homesman – Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones go west with volatile cargo

Tommy Lee Jones also stars in his second film as a director – a full-bodied quasi-feminist western in which he and Swank’s gutsy singleton escort three disturbed women across the mid-west plains.

Tommy Lee Jones shows some true storytelling grit in this superbly watchable frontier western; he has a muscular and confident command of narrative, driving the plot onward with a real whip-crack, and easily handles the tonal swings between brutal shock, black comedy and sentimentality. Jones stars, directs and has co-written the screenplay, taken from the 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout (whose The Shootist was filmed in 1976, with John Wayne in his final role).

As the director, Jones is certainly not shy of giving himself some big scenes and closeups, playing the ageing rough-diamond George Briggs. This boozy old army deserter finds redemption in the company of the courageous, lonely frontierswoman Mary Bee Cuddy, played with dignity and charm by Hilary Swank. There is one telling moment of western knockabout when a gang of vigilantes smokes Briggs out of the shack he’d been illegally occupying. They throw a dynamite-stick down the chimney and Briggs staggers out spluttering in his underclothes, smoke-blackened, his lined face stiped with soot in crinkly patterns around his eyes. The camera humorously but pointedly shows up that careworn face, an authentic part of the craggy landscape.

Swank’s Mary Bee is an educated woman whose people are from New York State: she finds the frontier life in mid-19th-century Nebraska tough with its baking heat and endless featureless plains. She is strong, resourceful and reasonably well off. Yet she is also lonely and maladroit, believing herself to be as “plain as a pot” and with a forthright habit of suggesting marriage to eligible menfolk which scares them, and gets her a reputation of being “bossy”. At a low moment in her emotional life, the local preacher Dowd (John Lithgow) confides in her the awful news that three frontier women have gone insane through the hardship and desolation of their existence; poverty and the death of children have sent them over the edge and there are some very horrible scenes.

Mary Bee volunteers for the unthinkably grim and dangerous task of carrying the three madwomen, chained up in a wagon, on a six-week journey across country to Ohio, where a churchwoman has agreed to take them. But Mary Bee needs someone to ride shotgun and the timid men thereabouts have found some excuse to avoid this chore. So she comes across the reprobate Briggs left by the vigilante gang hanging from a tree — she cuts him down and through a mixture of threats, schoolmarmish lectures and bribes induces Briggs to help her on this terrible journey. They begin their quest in a mood of mutual resentment and suspicion. And then, inevitably, there is a softening — but with unexpected twists in store.

This is a frontier tale with something of the classic style of Stagecoach or 3:10 to Yuma, but also the consciously grimmer, austerer feel of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff and indeed Lee Jones’s own The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada. And it is a frontier tale which is swimming against the generic current: most stories like these are about heading west. This is about a trudge in the opposite direction.

The metaphorical dimension of their ordeal is plain and yet un-stressed. A madwoman in the attic might hint at some suppressed Victorian passion or culpable sexual politics. The madwomen in the wagon indicate that madness is not in fact confined to these three: madness is all about, and perhaps imprisonment is all about as well. Briggs has come to terms with the pain in his heart through occasional bouts of drinking, wild singing and dancing. Poor Mary Bee does not quite know how to deal with her own suppressed pain and loneliness; she needs gentleness and love and there seems to be none on offer. Ugly, cantankerous and ornery Briggs is not exactly a plausible suitor. Or is he?

There are some broad emotional flourishes and ripe performances in The Homesman — maybe bordering on the over-ripe. But it is put over with such richness and verve. It could even win Lee Jones a prize at this year’s Cannes.