Tommy Lee Jones is almost seventy, yet this is somehow only his second theatrical release as a director. His first (which I have not seen) was The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a Western. His latest, The Homesman, is also a Western, and perhaps the most old-fashioned film of this year. I bring up Jones' age because it feels as though he wants to settle into familiarity as he strays further into his golden years. But this is the kind of familiarity that is a proper homage, specifically aimed at John Ford, the master of the genre. Ford would be proud of The Homesman, which is classical right down to the bone, from its starkly gorgeous landscapes and its leisurely pace.
Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a never-married woman working a farm in the Nebraska territory, pre-Civil War. Regarded as too plain and bossy to get a man of her own, she leads a virtuous, yet lonely existence. When the wives of three local men have all gone insane for one reason or another—death of children and daily rape do the trick—Cuddy finds herself responsible for transporting them single-handedly to the east, where she will leave them with a minister in Iowa. By chance, she stumbles on George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), left for dead by vengeful locals. Cuddy strikes a deal with Briggs: his life (and $300 cash) for helping her along the dangerous path to deliver the women. Incorrigibly out for no one but himself, Briggs agrees, and the caravan sets out on a journey bereft with vicious weather, unreliable food and water, and the unpredictable behavior of the hysterical women.
A handsome production from head to toe, The Homesman nevertheless tells its straight, nearly to a fault. The film rarely strays from its principal narrative, delivering its story with few complications or deviations. Due to its structure, the plot is inherently episodic, feeling less like a buildup and more like a procession of difficulties that the characters confront and then overcome. Until they don't. Two-thirds of the way through the film, the story takes a completely unexpected turn that irrevocably alters the direction it takes. It is a welcome twist that arises out of the motivations and desires of the characters; it feels organic in spite of how shocking it is. This development elevates the film beyond stagnation, which I initially feared it was heading towards.
Episodic stories can tend to skimp on character development, but Swank and Jones are so good in their roles that we can read their histories right on their faces. From the way that Jones responds to Swank's probing questions with stubborn silence, to the desperate glint in Swank's eyes when she asks a local man to marry her (mostly to assuage her loneliness), we don't need any more psychology than that. The supporting cast is so crowded with stars that in a lesser film would be distracting, yet here they manage to flesh out the world even further. The cast includes John Lithgow, William Fichtner, Miranda Otto, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, and Meryl Streep. Each of their characters gets at least one scene to shine, and they all fit in with the atmosphere established by Jones.
The Western genre certainly is no longer crowded, with the most recent traditional one being True Grit. With The Homesman, Jones demonstrates that the genre can still deliver vital, thrilling stories, without having to reinvent the wheel, or even touch it up. Sometimes its better to just leave the wheel alone.