Brilliantly gruff and grizzled character actor though he was, it would’ve taken a hell of a crystal ball to predict Tommy Lee Jones becoming, in this latter stage of his career, one of our most interesting, contentious filmmakers. In The Homesman, his second feature as director, Jones builds on the languid melancholy of his debut, 2005’s excellent The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Jones also adds a fierce political edge, unexpected comic moments and some astonishing, at times wilfully transgressive imagery in what is an often discordant – though thoroughly rewarding – watch.
Hilary Swank essays Mary Bee Cutty, a stoic and moderately successful farmer in the brutal Nebraska territories of the mid-19th Century. When three local women (played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) succumb to varyingly manifest mental illness following the horrifying hardship they endure, Reverend Alfred Dowd (Lithgow) suggests transporting them to a church in Iowa where they can receive suitable care. Realising these women’s husbands are not up to the task (ranging as they do from clueless whelp to odious abuser), Cutty volunteers to chaperone, enlisting out of desperation the dodgy George Briggs (Jones) to assist.
The torment of the women in the piece, almost exclusively resulting from their mistreatment by men, and certainly always trivialised and exacerbated by those men, is Jones’ primary focus, but he never strays to the didactic. He’s aided by brilliant, restrained performances from the four female leads, while the old-school stillness of Rodrigo Prieto’s painterly cinematography is nicely juxtaposed with the frankness of what unfolds on screen. It’s more fascinating work by Jones – let’s hope it’s not another nine years until his next.