Tommy Lee Jones' face is a national treasure, is it not? Each passing year adds to its pricelessness — not in the way a wine improves, but in the way your father's baseball glove, forgotten in a musty attic, creases with time. Is there a face on the screen as wizened, as ruined, as made for playing men who've seen unspeakable things?
Who else could've given us the haunted sheriff in No Country for Old Men? Or the heartbroken father of In the Valley of Elah, or that complicated cuss, Thaddeus Stevens, in Lincoln? It's impossible to imagine another actor in those roles. Likewise, it's preposterous to try to put a face other than Jones' on George Briggs, the claim jumper and whiskey enthusiast he plays in The Homesman, one of the most bleakly beautiful westerns ever made.
This is the second film Jones has directed (the first was 2005's underappreciated The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). Along with Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver, he adapted The Homesman from a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout. It opens in the Nebraska Territory a few years before the Civil War. Color, foliage and hills evidently have yet to be invented.
The small settlement is more half-realized notion than actual place. Sod hovels approximate houses. Stretches of dust-blown dirt do feeble impressions of streets, and, one by one, the residents are becoming unsettled.
Three women have gone crazy. One lost her children to disease. Another killed her baby and tossed the body down an outhouse hole. Both their living conditions and their men have proved brutal beyond enduring. One of the film's chief themes is the toll that pioneer life took on the women and children. In making this his focal point — as opposed to gunfights and saloon brawls — Jones has quite possibly made the first feminist western.
Hilary Swank has the starring role of Mary Bee Cuddy. A frontier spinster who's more than once described as too "plain and bossy" to attract a husband, she's also one of the few in town to have gotten and kept her act together.
The place's preacher (the omnipresent John Lithgow) needs a volunteer to take the madwomen east to Iowa. When none of the men offers his services, Cuddy agrees to transport them. She's able to secure Briggs' promise to provide protection after she happens on him with a noose around his neck — left to die by other settlers — and invites him to choose between dangling to death and helping her.
Getting from point A to point B proves unexpectedly perilous, given that every mile the group travels theoretically brings it closer to civilization and order. It's a six-week odyssey with as much David Lynch as John Ford in its cinematic DNA. Along the way, Briggs and Cuddy grow improbably close while grappling with dangers both indigenous to the genre and decidedly surreal — ranging from hostile Native Americans to hostile hoteliers. (James Spader, who merits a movie of his own, plays the latter.) It's a long, strange trip. Unpleasant surprises wait around every corner, and, when you least expect it, someone commits an act that's beyond shocking, sending chills through the rest of the film.
The Homesman's distributor has mounted a sort of halfhearted awards campaign on behalf of the picture and, in particular, touting two-time Oscar winner Swank's solid, subtle performance. But my guess is that effort won't end any more happily than the movie. Hollywood isn't big on bleak, even when it's beautiful and imbued with trace amounts of black humor. Jones makes the kind of movies that win admirers, not awards. The Homesman is the work of a deeply thoughtful, profoundly gifted artist. A guy who's not just another pretty face.