At 68, Tommy Lee Jones stands atop Hollywood’s maddening crowd of thespians; he’s an Oscar-winner, with 41 awards scattered among his 77 screen appearances who’s delivered powerhouse performances in such memorable films as The Fugitive, In TheValley of Ellah & No Country for Old Men while also directing himself in 2005’s The Three Burials ofMelquiades Estrada which won the best film award at The Cannes Film Festival that year. As universally recognized as he is skilled, he’s managed the feat of being an international star as well as a gifted actor. In Homesman, he adds writing & producing skills to his credits as actor and director in offering audiences this meandering, erratic and enigmatic road trip across America’s Great Plains in the mid-19th century which manages to capture the color and feel of that historical period as it provides Jones’ speculations on what drives our species to behave in the incomprehensible ways we do.
Driven by an innate sense of decency, spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) agrees to rescue 3 deranged wives from their brutally indifferently husbands and escort them from their bleak Nebraska community to a church in Iowa that’s promised to oversee their return to families even further east. Needing help in making this grueling month-long trip, she grudgingly employs George Briggs (Jones) to help her do so. Briggs agrees because he has neither choice nor other option; saved from hanging by Mary Bee for falsely claiming a homesteader’s property, the gnarled drifter’s as amoral as he is ungrateful; he agrees accompany her only when she agrees to pay him $300 in cash when they arrived at their destination.
Along the way, this miss-matched pair will confront bitterly hostile weather, an attempted kidnapping, Indian thieves and gnawing hunger while coping with each other; she prods, he churlishly rebukes, each operating out of opposing world views. Mary Bee’s a deeply religious idealist given to lecturing others about their behavior while George exudes a pervasive cynicism about attempted adherence to any standard other than every man for himself. She’s horrified by his pervasive profanity and complete disregard for others, yet she sees in his coping skills and gruff good humor the faint possibility of someone who might end her gnawing sense of loneliness. Briggs finds her moral sermonizing annoying and her commitment to their passengers pointless - - yet time and again he aids Mary Bee’s struggle to give these 3 much-abused women a sense of respect as the quintet works its way over a desolate and unforgiving landscape. She struggles to make him see his own essential goodness - - he rejects her appeal to his better instincts even while taking advantage of her neediness. By journey’s end, each has succeeded at the self-appointed task Mary Bee set for them at the outset while failing each other in the process…</p>
Swank gives a stunning performance as Mary Bee, combining strength of character with an aching desire for intimacy. The actress flawlessly projects a heartfelt, resolute yet simultaneously vulnerable woman, employing a range of facial expressions and verbal intonations worthy of the best actress nomination she deserves for her role. If Jones intended this film to be dominated by his character (and the script’s final 15 minutes suggests he did) then Ms. Swank’s pulled off a delicious piece of grand larceny, because she steals nearly every scene in which these two gifted actors are on screen together.
Jones’ dissolute drifter is another matter; part trail-boss in his command of the script's physical conflicts, (eminiscent of his role in Lonesome Dove) then part Zorba the Greek in his gleeful demonstrations as a hoedown dancer, George Briggs slowly morphs into someone reconnected to the rest of his race even as he drunkenly returns to careless self-destruction as the ending credits roll.
Jones’ role as writer/director is only partially successful; there’s an often static feel to the movies’ initial scenes that put the plot in motion and while cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Biutiful, Argo, Babel) captures the desolation of the plains, he isn’t nearly as accomplished as conveying their innate beauty despite composer Marco Beltrami’s haunting score that stealthily incorporates a recurring musical reference to a phrase from the hymn “Angles We Have Heard On High”. Finally, Meryl Streep inexplicably appears near the film’s end in what can only be a cinematic “thank you” to Jones for his thankless role as her sexually repressed husband 2012’s Hope Springs. But set aside these assorted reservations and allow yourself to absorb Jones’ personal philosophy so reminiscent of the characters in Flannery O'Conner's short stories. And relish the impact of Swank’s mesmerizing performance.
The Verdict? Another thought-provoking work by a great movie talent; not equal to his masterwork The Three Burials ofMelquiades Estrada, but more than worth the time and attention needed to grasp the director’s intentions.
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