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Telluride: Hilary Swank Angles for Another Shot at Oscar With ‘The Homesman’

The 40-year-old already has two best actress statuettes on her shelf, and is in fine form as a woman trying to do “a man’s job” in Tommy Lee Jones’ western

Hilary Swank already has two best actress Oscars on her shelf, for Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), which is something that only 12 other women have ever been able to claim. But, having only just turned 40, she is not resting on her laurels. Since her second win, in 2005, she has pursued a number of projects that were clearly intended to be awards bait — and in which she was great — but that failed to resonate with voters: The Black Dahlia (2006), Freedom Writers (2007), Amelia (2009) and Conviction (2010).

Now, however, she is starring in a film that in no way adheres to the traditional Oscar-baiting formula, Tommy Lee Jones’ western The Homesman — and she may have her best shot yet at landing her third nomination.

The Homesman premiered at Cannes in May, but had its North American premiere, and additional screenings, this weekend at Telluride, which also honored Swank with a “career tribute” (one of several that she is being lined up to receive this award season). Here stateside, viewers, while generally finding the film itself a bit too long and meandering — particularly during the stretch when Swank is not onscreen — do seem to be responding to the actress’ performance.

Swank portrays a good, “plain” Christian woman from the Nebraska Territories who, in the mid-19th century, agrees to transport a trio of mentally ill women across dangerous terrain and the Missouri River to Iowa after the supposedly God-fearing men in her community make excuses about why they cannot do so. She enlists for help a rapscallion whose life she saved (Tommy Lee Jones), but whose values are completely different for her own. Naturally, the unlikely duo encounter all sorts of challenges along the way — not least finding a way to coexist.

Interestingly, the two roles for which Swank won her Oscars were also women inhabiting unconventional roles in society: one a woman transitioning into becoming a man and the other a woman who enters the historically male world of boxing. Hey, if ain’t broke, don’t fix it! (Roles of women who appear to be schoolmarms but later prove to be something else have been nominated by the Academy in the past, the most famous example being Katharine Hepburn in 1951’s The African Queen, with which this film shares more than a little in common.)

But Jones’ film is, above all, a loving homage to other, better Westerns: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Jones dances a jig like Walter Huston), The Searchers (in which John Wayne visits a group of insane young women trying to find the one he is looking for, one of whom plays with a baby doll) and True Grit (Jones’ George Briggs and Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn would have enjoyed each other’s company), among others.

The Homesman features beautiful cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and a memorable score by Marco Beltrami (Beltrami also worked on Jones’ last Western, 2005’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), as well as small cameos by the likes of Meryl Streep (whose daughter Grace Gummer plays one of the deranged women), Hailee Steinfeld (returning to the Western genre after bagging a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for the True Grit remake) and James Spader (as a pompous prick, not for the first time), names that could help lure viewers into art houses when Roadside Attractions and Saban Films put the film into limited release on Nov. 14.