As an actor, Tommy Lee Jones has a face and temperament made for westerns, so it's no surprise that his scant credits behind the camera are almost exclusively limited to the genre. Released nearly a decade ago, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" took a sullen approach to an offbeat revenge tale while drawing on literary and real-world reference points. However, that film is downright muted compared to Jones' latest effort, "The Homesman." Adapting Glendon Swarthout's novel, Jones constructs a hodgepodge of western pastiches and revisions without settling into a unified groove. It ranks as one of the strangest projects of the 66-year-old Jones' career—as well as the most unorthodox entry in competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
Curiously funny when it's not tragic or bluntly sentimental, "The Homesman" is one of the weirdest American westerns since Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man," though hardly as cohesive. Jones' alternately skillful and irreverent approach results in a mixed bag of possibilities, with many terrifically entertaining on their own even as the overall picture remains muddled.
Though Jones eventually takes center stage in front of the camera, "The Homesman" initially focuses on the plight of Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a woman who lives alone on a Nebraska homestead and desperately wants to marry. From an early, melancholic scene where she abruptly proposes to a disinterested local, Cuddy is a compelling victim of her own self determination, eager to take charge of her life even as it has no clear trajectory. So it comes as no surprise that when a trio of local women go insane and require transport to a safe haven in Iowa, she volunteers to oversee the mission. What follows is her journey across a dangerous, barren world to the Missouri River, with only her self-involved driver George Briggs (Jones) and the loony cargo to keep her company. And as she gets swept into their insanity, the movie does as well.
Yet many aspects of "The Homesman" resemble familiar westerns. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is a beautiful mixture of gold-and-brown imagery, and Jones' camerawork is confident, keeping this unseemly narrative moving ahead even as it routinely changes course. At first, "The Homesman" is a tame character study of its female lead, but the manias of the three women—one of whom kills her newborn child—unfold with the touchstones of a horror movie. However, the atmospheric shifts come and go like the dusty winds that sweep the plains. Before long, the movie transforms into a whimsical buddy comedy and an action movie. Fun when it's not completely baffling, "The Homesman" has no specific precedent.
Swank is typically strong in an underdeveloped role as a solitary woman both in charge of her life and eager for companionship. Compared to female-centric westerns like "True Grit," she's a pathological outsider, fiercely individualistic and awkward in equal measures, but always a commanding presence. Yet once Jones enters the picture, he quickly turns into the star of the show. A cartoonish drifter she first discovers hanging from a noose on horseback, Jones' Briggs is a klutzy troublemaker who provides the ideal counterpoint to Cuddy's restrained demeanor.
As the pair cope with dwindling resources, the mad women's escape attempts and the threat of Native Americans, "The Homesman" shifts gears at an increasingly faster rate, to the point where its lack of predictability turns into a greater focal point than the actual plot. In one of its biggest gambles, an amusing sex scene is counteracted by a sudden death that fails to resonate on any emotional level. But it's just the first of many abrupt twists still to come.
As a clownish nomad whose motives are never entirely clear, Jones' performance matches the eccentricity of his directorial pacing. Unfortunately, few other actors receive enough screen time to register as anything other than stunt casting. Cameos include Tim Blake Nelson as a knife-waving lunatic, James Spader as a cruel-hearted hotel owner, and no less than Meryl Streep in a gentle, maternal mode during the final act. While "The Homesman" may represent a kaleidoscopic attempt to build on western traditions, the random slew of familiar faces have a distracting quality.
Yet the sheer oddness holds plenty of appeal, particularly once the focus shifts to Briggs. As the traces of a revenge drama come and go, "The Homesman" toys with the very idea of the hardened male hero of western yore. In a closing song-and-dance sequence, the movie ends on a morally ambiguous note, though the specifics of its characters' behavior are bound to inspire a range of interpretations—illustrating Jones' uneven grasp on the big picture.
Of all the movies in the main competition at Cannes this year, nothing else contains so many peculiar choices and surprising turns. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Winter Sleep" provides an extensive viewing challenge dense with dialogue and subtext, but that should come as no surprise for anyone familiar with his work. Jean-Luc Godard's "Goodbye to Language" is certain to offer plenty of outré elements, but that's always to be expected from the New Wave provocateur. "The Homesman," on the other hand, looks like many movies we've seen before, while constantly rejigging their ingredients to such a confounding degree that it becomes a parody of the exact same components that it seems to take seriously.
"The Homesman" premieres this weekend at the Cannes Film Festival. It does not yet have U.S. distribution.