Back in 2005, Tommy Lee Jones made his feature-directing debut with the death-trip Western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. The film hinted that behind his crusty Lone Star facade, Jones might actually be the heir to Sam Peckinpah — an uncompromising maverick with a sweet tooth for sagebrush sagas about bleak macho redemption. In his latest sojourn behind the camera, The Homesman, Jones shifts his sights to a feminist heroine but never really explores the intriguing possibilities of that choice.
Set in the remote Nebraska Territory of the 1850s, the film tells the story of Mary Bee Cuddy, a stern, unmarried frontierswoman (Hilary Swank) who volunteers to transport to Iowa three women driven mad by prairie fever. Riding shotgun on the treacherous five-week trek is Jones’ George Briggs, a muttonchopped scoundrel who agrees to accompany Mary only because she saved him from being hanged. Well, that and the promise of $300. As they cross the savage, unforgiving plains with their wailing cargo of lost souls, the two forge a frosty sort of friendship that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn swap insults in The African Queen. She’s a brassy, God-fearing prig; he’s a surly, whiskey-soaked heathen whom she rehabilitates into a man of conscience. With her sad, haunted eyes and ”plain as a tin pail” looks, Swank is by far the best thing in the movie. More than most actresses, she seems unburdened by vanity. She manages to burrow deep inside her character and find the heartbreaking loneliness beneath the self-righteous bluster. But while the film is bathed in a beautiful magic-hour glow courtesy of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Jones’ journey doesn’t quite take off. Not only is the plight of the women they’re carrying never reasonably explained, George’s conversion from Yosemite Sam to Good Samaritan isn’t convincing for a second. C+