*** stars ****
Oscar-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones makes his 2nd feature film (he’s also done two for TV) with the unconventional Western The Homesman.
Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, Hilary Swank plays a Nebraska spinster frequently described as “plain” and “bossy.” But she’s skilled at frontier life and she volunteers to transport three women who have lost their minds and need to be taken to Iowa for proper care. But as competent as she is, she still fears she’s not up to the task by herself. After stumbling upon a claim jumper (Jones) left to die, she saves his life on the condition he help her on the journey.
Movies have rarely addressed the plight of women in the West, and one of the meager attempts was the cheesy 1994 action movie Bad Girls. It’s not good enough for Swank to be independent and accomplished; she has to be married to be socially acceptable. The three afflicted women have all suffered horribly - one is routinely raped by her husband, another lost three small children to diptheria.
Jones, who co-wrote the script with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, largely avoids sentimentality. Jones’ claim jumper doesn’t reveal himself to have a heart of gold. He’s not evil and he has flashes of decency, but he remains the type of man who will always get himself into trouble, one way or another.
The script has a genuinely surprising plot twist 90 minutes in (total runtime is 122 minutes). Some may find it dilutes the film’s feminist message, but it’s largely consistent with the bleak reality the film presents of life in the West.
Jones isn’t a prolific director, but he consistently tells interesting stories in an intelligent manner. Hopefully, he returns to the director’s chair soon.