You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cannes Film Review: ‘The Homesman’

As in 'The Missing,' Tommy Lee Jones plays support to a strong female character in this sturdy cross-country Western.

Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, David Dencik, William Fichtner, Grace Gummer, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Miranda Otto, Jesse Plemons, Sonja Richter, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep.

Apart from the surly old bandit referred to by the film’s title, nearly all the characters of import in Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” are women. Some, like the hardy pioneer embodied by Hilary Swank, demonstrate what fortitude it took to succeed on the frontier. Others, such as the three “cuckoo clocks” she volunteers to escort back East, reflect the consequences that such a demanding life could put on those of a less resilient temperament. Between those two extremes exists a range as vast as the horizons in this sturdy cross-country Western, which shares more than just an actor in common with “Lonesome Dove” and could lasso some of its audience, with the right kind of push.

“People like to talk about death and taxes, but when it comes to crazy, they stay hushed up,” notes a townsperson in the hardscrabble Nebraska Territories where the seemingly linear but surprisingly unpredictable story begins. That amateur philosopher’s observation is as true today as it might have been in 1854, which means instead of rehashing the same stale Old West stories that have all but exhausted the genre, “The Homesman” — based on a novel by “The Shootist” scribe Glendon Swarthout once eyed for adaptation by Sam Shepard — has the unique advantage of exploring a relatively overlooked chapter of America’s past.

Jones and co-writers Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver privilege their female perspective from the outset, introducing stalwart yet plain 31-year-old Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) behind her plow. A relative success among a community of hard-luck farmers, Mary Bee still lacks a husband, which may be for the best, considering the unhappy state of the three young wives the film introduces next: Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer, the daughter of Meryl Streep) lost three children to diphtheria; Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) tossed her infant down the outhouse hole; and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter) appears to be possessed by demons.

In contrast with Mary Bee’s sympathetic portrayal, the footage of these three women would be right at home in a Japanese horror movie and may well have been moved from later in the film (perhaps these unsettling vignettes seemed reductively analytical when presented as flashbacks) in order to humanize her “cargo” from the outset. Otherwise, with less to go on, the impression might have been that the frontier had turned these women feral. At any rate, the town preacher (John Lithgow) decides the only thing to be done is to pack them up and drive them back to Iowa, where a Methodist minister’s wife (Streep herself, the picture of kindness) has offered them hospice — except no man will do it, which is how Mary Bee came to lead this lunatic expedition.

Just as she is setting out, Mary Bee happens upon a wild card who calls himself George Briggs (Jones), a claim-jumping army deserter with a noose around his neck and an unsteady horse beneath him. He’s not in much of a position to negotiate, which means Mary Bee can enlist his help in exchange for saving his life. A proud and devoutly religious woman, Mary Bee isn’t normally the type to ask for help, but lately, she seems to have recognized that life might be a little less arduous with someone to share it with, and while the thought is nowhere in her mind at the time, a bonding experience such as this could be a way of auditioning a suitable mate.

As it happens, “The Homesman” is neither so conventional as that, nor so fresh as to mess with the relatively episodic series of incidents that define such a trek — quite unlike the more prismatic structure of Jones’ exceptional first feature, 2005’s “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” With three burials of its own, this more conventionally told feature similarly invests character and landscape with enormous significance, creating in Mary Bee and George personalities large enough to share the frame with the expansive Midwestern sky (a good deal of the time, it’s actually New Mexico or Georgia we’re looking at).

Captured in widescreen by “Babel” d.p. Rodrigo Prieto and hauntingly underscored by composer Marco Beltrami’s piano-and-string themes, this is different topography from that of John Ford movies: flat and forlorn open prairie, absent of water and trees. Though there’s a natural appeal to the unspoiled American outdoors, these vistas aren’t presented as scenic per se (effectively denying one of the pleasures the Western genre typically delivers), and it’s not a place one would want to be left stranded alone, much less one to share with three wailing women.

As Western tropes go, this journey plays the myth almost in reverse: Though the pack moves screen-left-to-right, their frame wagon is headed in the “wrong” direction, a rolling sanitarium with barred windows and hard-wood top returning East with those who couldn’t make it on the frontier. If mishandled, such a mission could all too easily have slipped into condescending comedy, but instead, Jones allows himself — along with several other unflattering male characters, including those played by a randy Tim Blake Nelson and a dandy James Spader — to serve as the butt of whatever humor exists.

Though playing comfortably within his familiar curmudgeonly old coot mode, the actor nevertheless resists letting his cantankerous mannerisms lapse into shtick. From the character’s powder-keg introduction to his final jig, Jones distinguishes George from the grumps he’s played in the past, creating yet another memorable antihero for his oeuvre. Still, he’s most generous toward Swank, in whom he recognizes a no-nonsense actress with the chops to convey the quiet suffering her duty-bound character holds inside — qualities his character also sees reflected by “True Grit’s” Hailee Steinfeld in the final stretch.

Unlike other actor-directors, Jones never seems to indulge excess on the part of his cast. Though the characters are strong, the performances are understated. Even the three ladies settle into a state of near-catatonia after awhile, rather than indulging their various “hysterias.” In the past, people have whispered about Jones’ attitudes toward women; with this film, he says a thing or two on the subject with a sensitivity that comes as a welcome surprise.

Popular on Variety

Cannes Film Review: 'The Homesman'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 18, 2014. Running time: 122 MIN.

Production: A EuropaCorp presentation and production, in association with Peter Brant, Javelina Film Co., Ithaca Films. (International sales: Europacorp, Paris.) Produced by Brant, Brian Kennedy, Luc Besson. Executive producers, Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Fitzgerald, Deborah Dobson Bach, Hughes Abell.

Crew: Directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Screenplay, Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley Oliver, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Camera (color), Rodrigo Prieto; editor, Roberto Silvi; music, Marco Beltrami; music supervisor, Austin Leonard Jones; production designer, Merideth Boswell; art director, Guy Barnes; set decorator, Wendy Ozols-Barnes; costume designer, Lahly Poore-Ericson; sound (Dolby Digital), Jose Antonio Garcia; supervising sound editor; re-recording mixers, Bach, Richard Beggs, Jim Schultz; stunt coordinator, Billy Burton; special effects coordinator, Blair Foord; visual effects supervisor, Felix Berges; visual effects, El Ranchito; associate producer, Larry Maderas; assistant director, Philip Hardage; casting, Jeanne McCarthy.

With: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, David Dencik, William Fichtner, Grace Gummer, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Miranda Otto, Jesse Plemons, Sonja Richter, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep.

More Film

  • Nicolas Cage Hainan International Film Festival

    China's Hainan Film Festival Launches Golden Coconut Competition

    The deep-pocketed, government-run Hainan Island International Film Festival has launched a new competition section for its second iteration, set to take place from December 1-8. This year, ten ‘Golden Coconut Awards’ will be given out across three categories of films: feature-length, feature documentaries, and fictional shorts. Prizes will be presented for best picture, best director, [...]

  • Panda

    France's Troisième Œil Teams With China's CICC on Richard Dale's 'Panda Kingdom' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Troisième Œil Productions is teaming with Chinese partners to make its first international co-production with the premium documentary “Panda Kingdom,” and has brought BAFTA-winning director Richard Dale on board to helm it. The outfits China Aviation Pictures and CICC are co-producing the documentary with Troisième Œil Productions. The docu feature will explore the captive breeding [...]

  • Andhadhun receives AACTA nomination

    Indian and Chinese Titles Dominate AACTA Asian Award Nominations

    Three Indian and three mainland Chinese films are among the nine feature movies shortlisted for the Best Asian Film Award by the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. The Indian selections are box office hit “Andhadhun,” “Super Deluxe, and “Gully Boy,” which premiered in February at the Berlin festival. The Chinese trio includes “Shadow,” [...]

  • Fernando Meirelles The Two Popes

    Film News Roundup: 'The Two Popes' Wins Audience Award at Miami Festival

    In today’s film news roundup, “The Two Popes” wins an audience award, “A Night with Janis Joplin” and “Fittest in Dubai” get releases, Artists First reorganizes, SAG-AFTRA expands its headquarters and Film Fest 919 announces its winners. AUDIENCE AWARD Fernando Meirelles’ “The Two Popes” has won the audience award at the Miami Gems Film Festival. [...]

  • Scotty Bowers

    Scotty Bowers, Old Hollywood's Sexual Matchmaker, Dies at 96

    Scotty Bowers, a “sexual matchmaker” for dozens of stars during the Golden Age of Hollywood who wrote about his colorful — and sometimes unbelivable — life in his memoir “Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars,” died at his Laurel Canyon home on Sunday. He was 96. The [...]

  • AMC theater

    AMC Entertainment Introducing On-Demand Movie Service

    AMC Entertainment will introduce an online video store in the United States on Tuesday. Adam Aron, AMC’s president and chief executive, said that the AMC Theaters On Demand will offer about 2,000 films for sale or rent after their theatrical runs — much like Amazon or iTunes. Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Sony and Paramount have [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content