The Good Old Boys” has “vanity project” written all over it: Tommy Lee Jones not only stars but also makes his debut as director and writer (with J.T. Allen). By rights, it should be an indulgent and self-conscious effort; instead, it’s a work of uncommon charm and poignance. It’s being shown on TNT but would look just fine on the bigscreen.
Not exactly understated — you expect subtlety from an actor who’s recently turned in over-the-top perfs in “Natural Born Killers” and “Cobb”– Jones nonetheless comes by his dramatic visual images honestly, and he more than justifies his use of Western narrative archetypes.
Anyway, a character like Jones’ Hewey Calloway is refreshing; he’s the sort of man audiences don’t see much anymore. Like his Western film ancestors stretching back to Gary Cooper and beyond, he’s wild yet essentially decent, troubled yet an undeniably good soul, rough on the outside yet ultimately tender.
In short, he’s a classic movie cowboy, and Jones brings him to life vividly, with great skill and affection.
While “The Good Old Boys” is an end-of-the-West tale, it shares the spirit of Westerns of the ’40s and ’50s rather than the revisionist pix of recent decades. A couple of brawls notwithstanding, the film adopts an amiable, even idyllic view of the West.
Starting with the evocative, stripped-down score by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen, which accompanies the mood-setting opening vistas of big Western skies (credit cinematographer Alan Caso and production designer Cary White), and Jones’ lone cowboy trekking across the wilds of Texas, the filmmaker indicates a deep kinship with his subject.
Jones’ Hewey is a veteran cowboy who, after wandering for a few years over what’s left of the untamed — or barely tamed — West, has returned to his brother’s homestead in the west Texas town of San Angelo.
Never one to settle down, or even take on responsibility beyond running some cattle, he clearly doesn’t fit in with his domesticated brother, Walter (Terry Kinney) and his family: harsh, hardened wife, Eve (Frances McDormand), and two sons, the yearning Cotton (Matt Damon) and the naive Tommy (Blayne Weaver).
Still, a sense of duty keeps Hewey around as he helps Walter keep his struggling homestead, despite the efforts of the local banker (Wilford Brimley) to evict the Calloways. His uncharacteristic domesticity is fueled by a growing affection for the prim (but with a fiery heart, naturally) schoolteacher, Spring Renfro (Sissy Spacek, Jones’ co-star in “Coal Miner’s Daughter”).
Complications in his life arise when old cowboy buddy Snort Yarnell (Sam Shepard at his most gregarious) shows up and persuades Hewey to revert to some old, bad habits.
Jones does a fine job of capturing the complexities of this bad old, good old boy, and in particular creates a character clearly distinct from his most famous Western character, “Lonesome Dove’s” Woodrow Call.
While the plot revolves around familiar a-man’s-got-to-do-what-a-man’s-got-to-do and David-vs.-Goliath plot points, much of the telefilm’s charm lies in its details.
Some high points revolve around this old-fashioned cowboy’s coming to grips with the 20th century, such as the brief but charming scene when Hewey visits a whorehouse and finds himself more fascinated by the electric lights than the ladies.
This is indicative of the confident sweetness that permeates the film — and counters the angry intensity that characterizes much of Jones’ work elsewhere. Jones impresses not just by his facility as a double-hyphenate, but by the way he plays against expectations. What’s more, this breeziness doesn’t come at the expense of authenticity. Audiences feel the dry air, sense the changing of the order.
“The Good Old Boys” isn’t a landmark work — it will neither revive the Western genre nor change viewers’ lives. But it is enormously entertaining and marks an auspicious directing debut. It’s not so much a vanity project as a virtuosity effort.