(Tommy-Lee Jones, 2014)
A modern Western that feels literary, in that it flirts with the baroque pulse of Blood Meridian or Butchers Crossing, The Homesman is something of an oddball wonder from writer-director-star Tommy-Lee Jones. It comes frustratingly close to greatness, however, before fudging that somewhat in the third act.
The beginning is startlingly bold: it sets out to look at something Westerns generally ignore - the brutality of life on the frontier for women. We meet Mary Bea Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a tough and capable spinster, working on her own neat Nebraska claim. When a gentleman neighbour comes for supper, she desperately proposes marriage, which he rejects on the grounds that she is plain and bossy.
We also meet three other women; each of them losing their grasp on sanity due to the harshness of their life on the plains. Jones has a way with a surreal, memorable image - here we see a woman walk naked from a house in the snow, nursing a baby on her breast, then casually toss the infant into an outhouse toilet. Each woman's condition is signalled with similarly cinematic economy. The story finds Cuddy volunteering to transport all three women back East to family, and she is joined by Jones' Briggs, a plain-speaking scoundrel with a mysterious past who she comes across left to hang from a tree in the middle of nowhere.
It then becomes a strange mix of elements - picaresque odyssey, darkly comic buddy film, savage western - held together by some beautiful imagery, and the fine chemistry between the leads. Swank is never too kind to Cuddy, who is always, and sometimes annoyingly, herself. Jones plays the kind of part he could play in his sleep, and he does it well.
His direction is better; beautifully textured and patiently paced, The Homesman feels quite unlike anything else, some of its baffling twists defying logic and prediction, but each working on its own terms.