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‘The Homesman’: Cannes Review

Tommy Lee Jones’ in competition Western stars Hilary Swank, John Lithgow, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld and Meryl Streep.

The rough lot handed to women in the Old West remains a footnote in the cinematic history of cowboy days, but it figures front and center in The Homesman. Tommy Lee Jones’ adaptation of the late Glendon Swarthout’s flavorful 1988 novel is both lyrical and shocking, weirdly funny and grimly serious. Fronted by fine and wise performances by Hilary Swank as a self-sufficient unmarried pioneer charged with transporting three insane women back East and by Jones himself as a shiftless claim-jumper obliged to help her, this beautifully crafted film intrigues as a story never told before and ratchets up dramatic interest through a succession of unexpected turns. Debuting in the Cannes competition, as did Jones’s feature directorial outing The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, this partially French-financed production should prove accessible to a wider audience than did that 2005 modern Western but will nonetheless need special handling by a conscientious distributor.

As he did with the contemporary Three Burials, Jones again looks at life in the American West from an uncustomary angle, this time examining two solitaires who have pursued opportunities in sparsely settled territory in vastly different ways. Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) is a proper, pious, intensely disciplined spinster who maintains her small Nebraska farm with an exceptional work ethic. Too old by 1850s standards to be considered ideal marriage material, she has now decided to approach matrimony as a business proposition but, at the outset, is rudely rejected by a boorish bumpkin who tells her she’s not only plain but “too bossy.”

The next candidate she encounters is at the end of his rope—literally so, as he’s sitting on a horse under a tree with a noose around his neck. Before she rescues the man, who’s dressed only his longjohns, from a fate he may well deserve, Mary Bee extracts a promise from him that he’ll do anything she wants if she cuts him down.

And so it is that George Briggs (Jones), a bewhiskered rascal without a trace of trustworthiness or responsibility about him, comes to accompany Mary Bee on an unwelcome task she’s taken on, taking to Iowa (which counts as the East from Nebraska) the three women who have gone crazy due to the rigors and deprivations of life on the plains.

For a moment, it looks as though the film may be headed for The African Queen territory, an odd couple romance between two people of opposite temperments stuck together on an unlikely odyssey.

But it doesn’t play out that way at all, for starters because the three loony passengers cast a pall over an expedition that promises to take several weeks. One woman (Grace Gummer) has lost a baby and has been sent away by her husband after turning into a silent, doll-clutching zombie; another (Miranda Otto) was driven to despair by the failure of the family farm and hysterically threw her newborn baby down an outhouse hole, while the third (Sonja Richter) lost her mother in the snow and, believing she needs an exorcism, spends her days writhing and screaming.

During the middle section devoted to the journey, Jones and his co-screenwriters Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver might have done a bit more to stir the dramatic pot. On the open range, which is wonderfully represented in its tawny splendor by locations outside Las Vegas, New Mexico, the little party are sitting ducks and at one point get attacked by Indians. But because George has the attitude that he’s only in this for he payday that awaits him at trip’s end, his character isn’t forthcoming, so it takes a while for much to start cooking between him and Mary Bee. It’s easy to imagine the Coen Brothers, for instance, taking the same material more towards absurdist comedy, a Kelly Reichardt digging deeper into the rigors of survival and the characters’ frailties, or a more conventional filmmaker pushing it toward an unlikely love story.

But Jones’ easing up on the reins may, eventually, work to the film’s benefit in amplifying the shock when a huge dramatic left hook comes out of the blue at the 80-minute mark; you can’t see it coming and it takes quite some time to shake its effect and absorb its meaning.

So vast and unprotected is the world of the prairie that when, at length, the destination is reached, the vestiges of civilization seem like paradise on Earth. (the idyllic Iowa-set scenes were shot in the living history town recreation in Lumpkin, Georgia’s). The woman who takes in the unhinged passengers (played by Gummer’s mother, Meryl Streep) seems like the first relatively normal person to have appeared onscreen. At least one character may have learned something along the way. All the same, what proves lasting is a sense of shock over the fates of those pushed beyond endurable limits by the extremes of pioneer life, an existence where deprivation—physical and emotional—runs deep.

In what’s probably her best big screen role since Million Dollar Baby, Swank is obliged to keep Mary Bee’s emotions in tight check, but the pain her valiant character bottles up emerges in piercing flashes to lasting effect. Jones’ scalawag is a man on the run from everything he’s ever done in his life, and director guides himself to a performance that is mildly amusing and glancingly poignant by turns.

The rest of the cast constitutes a colorful gallery off-center characters for whom life has not worked out just as they might have hoped.
Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography has a precise and spare clarity that provides constant pleasure, while the fine work of production designer Merideth Boswell and costume designer Lahly Poore-Ericson’s contribute most of all to further defining Mary Bee’s character. Other films adapted from novels by Swarthout are John Wayne’s final outing, The Shootist, Bless the Beasts and Children and Where the Boys Are.