Tommy Lee Jones loves his westerns, maybe because he feels like he should’ve been born fifty years earlier, as he certainly has the leathery charms to play a kick-ass gun-slinger back in the Wild West’s cinematic hey-day. A few years back he made his directorial debut with under-rated and under- watched western The Three Burials Of Melquaides Estrada, and now he’s back to make another one, writing the script this time around, too.
Jones plays George Briggs, a harmless outlaw who is saved by Mary Bee Cuddy (an ugly’d-up Hilary Swank) from hanging, as long as he agrees to travel with her and her carriage full of crazy women to a preacher’s wife several states over who will take them in.
As far as plot goes, that’s about it, as the story is far more episodic than overall arch, with Briggs and Cuddy running into a series of famous faces – Meryl Streep, James Spader, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, Hailee Steinfeld – who hang around for a scene or two, and then the movie heads on to the next one. The same overview is given to the three mad women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter), with a creepy prelude showing these moments of insanity, but we’re never given any kind of worthy pay-off with them.
Instead, the movie very much focuses on Swank’s "oddly" single farm-owner, clearly heartbroken from being passed over by any potential husbands, slowly being driven mad herself but hiding it much better. Her interactions with Jones lead the film to go in directions you never quite expect, a rawness that keeps you constantly on edge, even as their bickery back-and-forth keeps you laughing throughout.
This isn’t quite Jones’ Unforgiven, but that may be because we never associated him with Westerns the same way we did with Clint. What The Homesman does prove is that Jones has total command of storytelling and tone, working with some gorgeous vistas and a subtle score, and can still bring new shades to a thoroughly worn-out genre. We’d love to see what he could come up with in a more modern setting, maybe playing someone chasing down a fugitive from the law...