Eight years ago (gosh, was it really that long?), Tommy Lee Jones made his long-awaited feature directorial debut with the contemporary neo-western “The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada.” The film premiered at Cannes, and proved a big hit there, winning a Best Actor trophy for Jones, and a Best Screenplay prize for “Babel” scribe Guillermo Arriaga. But the film never quite found an audience outside the Croisette, and perhaps for that reason, the only thing that Jones has made in the meantime was a modest HBO adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Sunset Limited.”
Until now, anyway. The actor-director is back at Cannes with “The Homesman,” an adaptation of the novel by Glendon Swarthout, and while ‘Three Burials’ certainly nodded at the Western, this is the full-fat version, full of settlers and pioneers and wagons and Indians. It’s also a much less fully-formed and complete picture than its predecessor, one that looks likely to prove divisive, and that’s unlikely to find a bigger crowd. But while it’s an awkward, uneven picture, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a fascinating one.
Set in the 1850s, it stars Hilary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy, a forthright, independent 31-year-old woman with a modest but thriving farm in Nebraska, but who’s deemed to be too plain and too bossy to land a man. Three women in the community (Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter andMiranda Otto) have lost their minds due to various tragedies, and when their husbands (Jesse Plemons, David Dencik and William Fichtner) fail to step up, Mary Bee volunteers to escort them in a wagon to a woman in Iowa (Meryl Streep, in a cameo that likely took all of an afternoon to shoot) who’s offered to care for them).
It’s a long, difficult and dangerous journey for anyone, let alone a prim, if capable single woman, and so when she happens across George (Jones), a claim-jumper in the midst of being lynched, she saves his life, and offers him $300 on the condition that he aids her in her quest. Without much choice, he accepts, and they set out on the long and dangerous trail, facing freighters, Native American tribes and worse.
As a road movie based on a novel, it’s not a huge surprise that this is an episodic piece of work, wandering gently and episodically from scene to scene without a huge sense of urgency. Some are more interesting than others (Tim Blake Nelson’s typically gross, menacing cameo is better than James Spader and his questionable Irish accent later on, for instance), and that’s in part because of a fairly severe tonal imbalance throughout.
Mary Bee, as played by Swank (who’s the best she’s been in some time here), is a fairly somber and serious figure, and her arc follows as such, while Jones, channeling Walter Matthau to some degree, is a broader figure, a sort of wackier, less stable Rooster Cogburn. They’re designed as an odd couple (who, obviously, come to a kind of mutual respect), but they’re odd enough that the film feels terribly uneven, swinging from buddy-comedy to bleak pioneer drama and back again in the space of five minutes.
It’s the more downbeat stuff that’s the most effective: Jones is examining the hard life of a woman in the Old West, both through Swank and through the three woman they escort (who don’t get all that much to do but play upper-case Crazy), and though it falls through on its feminism by keeping the focus on Jones rather than Swank, it’s nevertheless fairly effective, and does pack a real punch by the end. There are interesting hints, though not entirely followed through on, that Swank and Jones are just as mad as their charges, which adds a few more intriguing layers to proceedings.
As such, while the film’s not terribly satisfying, sitting too awkwardly on screen to feel fully-achieved, it’s an odd enough bird that it’s more than worth the watch. And Jones, if nothing else, remains a confident director: it nods more to John Ford (and a little John Huston: “The African Queen” is an obvious touchstone too) than more contemporary takes on the genre, but the old-school classicism suits the material, and Rodrigo Prieto’s photography is never less than gorgeous.
Too meditative to tick boxes for the gunplay crowd, and too silly and uneven for the arthouse gang, the film will likely be dismissed by many as a misfire. But in a festival with a lot of thoroughly decent, well-made, tasteful pictures that didn’t quite have us swooning, we savored the chance to sit through something a little more unruly. [B]