Thursday, November 27, 2014

Driven crazy by the West

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank play an eccentric duet.
Relying on eccentric performances, sparse landscapes and occasional comic flourishes, Tommy Lee Jones returns to directing with The Homesman, a drama with insanity at its core -- literally.

As a knockabout and claim jumper, Jones's George Briggs joins with Hillary Swank's Mary Bee Cuddy to escort three women from the Nebraska territory to Iowa. The three women, we soon learn, are insane, having been made that way either by their husbands or by the severe deprivations of a desolate frontier.

In what amounts to a not-so-cute meet, Mary Bee and Briggs hook up after she saves him from hanging. In return, he agrees to accompany her on her eastward journey and to obey any order she might give.

Swank gives the story its sense of flinty determination. Early on, Mary Bee makes a down-to-earth marriage proposal to a dopey cowboy. She offers children, land and shared work. Nope, says the cowboy. She's too plain looking and too damn bossy.

No surprise, then, that Mary Bee volunteers to take the women eastward -- from the windswept Nebraska territory to the more hospitable embrace of Iowa. Back East, the women (Sonja Richter, Grace Gummer and Miranda Otto) just might restore their lost souls -- or at least put themselves out of harm's way.

Those who've seen Jones's directorial debut -- Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada -- won't be surprised to learn that his second movie displays a taste for imagery that's as unsettling as the barren landscapes over which Briggs and Mary Bee carry their wounded charges. A pair of mules hauls this misbegotten trio of mad women in a wagon that looks like a portable jail.

A couple of early shots evoke the iconic west of John Ford, but Jones's characters never achieve the archetypical shine that Ford gave his characters. If John Wayne was like a mighty oak, Jones seems like a gnarled root that protrudes from the ground, twisting and turning but never really finding the nourishment of the sun.

In some ways, Homesman -- which was adapted from a novel by Glendon Swarthout -- is less a western than an indictment of the West as uncharted territory where greed, lawlessness and squalor easily can trump virtue, but where some kind of primal energies still survive.

The movie, of course, looks at the role of women in the West: The women in this movie aren't the kind to keep the home fires burning; they've been burned by the home fires and turned into damaged goods.

The movie contains a twist you probably won't see coming, and, at times, Jones comes close to trying our collective patience. A little giddyap in the pacing might have helped, along with a little less self-conscious, frontier eccentricity.

But Jones hits some hauntingly strange notes in a movie that takes its own sweet time serving up a pill that's not meant to go down easily.

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