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Hilary Swank Makes a Comeback in the Sad and Strange The Homesman

In Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman, which premiered in competition at Cannes today, Hilary Swank plays a determined pioneer woman in a dark and difficult world.

Nine years after his directorial debut, the Cannes hit The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Tommy Lee Jones trains his grizzled, world-weary gaze on the old frontier with the competition film The Homesman, an adaptation of the Glendon Swarthout novel. It’s a film that is as wistfully beautiful as it is disarmingly strange. What begins as an adventure story, about a brave pioneer woman, Mary Bee (Hilary Swank), transporting three insane women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter) from their Nebraska territory claims to Iowa, eventually becomes a spirited, mournful meditation on the uses, and futilities, of human resilience against a cruel, capricious world.

Jones, who also co-stars as a scraggly claim jumper shanghaied by Mary Bee, has created something somewhat disorienting. Part old-style Western, part dark comedy, and part tragedy, the film is tonally scattered, and full of abrupt, startling plot turns that forced me to continually reconsider what kind of film I was watching. I suppose that constant and surprising change is a lot like life, which may be Jones’s point, though as a moviegoing experience, The Homesman suffers a bit from all its zig-zagging.

There’s much to like, though. Jones is reliably ornery but deceptively wise, and Swank does her best work in years as the determined, principled Mary Bee, a lonely woman who, born in the wrong era, is routinely punished for her willfulness. (She’s repeatedly called bossy, which probably means the prairie settlers didn’t get Sheryl Sandberg’s memo.) Her eyes watery with a fierce need, Swank is more expressive than she’s been on film in a decade, giving a performance that’s alert and full-blooded, and fully human. The three women—the Weird Sisters, or maybe the Fates—don’t have much to say, but all three actresses have acute physical presences, effectively communicating how obliterating life on the prairie in those early days was for so many people, though we tend to mythologize those settlers as bright-faced, hard-working ideals of American gumption. Some certainly were! But many of them were also completely miserable, leading meager, lonely lives.

The difficult landscape they wander around in is beautifully shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, his compositions making simple but vivid backdrops of dry yellow grass and cold blue sky. The terrain is so forbidding, so barren and windswept, that it seems impossible that anything could flourish there. And yet here are these few hardscrabble people, clinging to life with a conviction whose source isn’t quite clear. Maybe it’s faith, or maybe it’s just an innate will to live, a universally human spirit that Jones is perhaps celebrating. Though at times his film is so casually punishing that it’s equally likely that Jones doesn’t think that will can protect us from much of anything.

But our humanity is worth something anyway, The Homesman says with a sigh. At least I think it does? After a bluntly shocking turn of events about two-thirds of the way in, the film meanders to an end that plays like a shrug. Death happens, and people move on. Toward what, nobody knows. Maybe nowhere. But the wagons will keep coming from the East and some heartier, or just luckier, people will thrive where so many of these poor folks couldn’t. The randomness of that success and failure, those grinding losses and small gains, is perhaps the chief villain in The Homesman. Characters who do the right thing, the moral thing, still can’t seem to catch a break. Those who do terrible things aren’t always met with just consequences. That could make trying to live a good life seem pretty pointless. Unless, of course, the trying is the point. In its peculiar way, I think that’s what The Homesman is saying; that amidst all the pain and chaos of trying to eke out an existence in this often inhospitable world, we make ourselves matter. And that counts for something, even if, eventually enough, no one will even know we were here.