Tommy Lee Jones made his Cannes directorial debut in 2005 with “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” and was awarded best screenplay for it (Guillermo Arriaga was scribe) and the best actor nod. It’s taken him nine years to turn out his new opus “The Homesman,” as director. After Faulkner, he’s adapted a novel by Glendon Swarthout and revisits the Western genre. The resulting film, a moral and social fable from a different era, is excellent and underscores Tommy Lee Jones’s talent with film direction. Hopefully T.L.J. won’t wait another nine years to make his next film.
The plot of “The Homesman,” which screened here in Cannes this morning, starts in Nebraska in 1853 in a time of conquest of the West and harsh-living. Disease annihilated men in those days. In one colony, all of a woman’s children could be killed by disease, which is in fact, what happened. The woman went mad as a result, two other women from nearby hamlets also have the crazy, for various other reasons.
To avoid them “contaminating” the other colonists, it is decided by the colony that these women should be driven back East to be cared for by their family. Adventurers, the homesmen of the title, are paid in gold to accompany these women through the Great Plains, a dangerous proposition what with the desperados and Indians roaming the area in want of loot and women to rape. This time, the call is answered by a woman named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). Cuddy is a pious old maid who will have face the hostile lands of the West. Aware that she cannot make the journey alone, she teams up with Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) an intrepid crook and army deserter who appropriates himself plots of land which don’t belong to him.
Is “The Homesman” your typical Western? Not really. It’s set in the 1850s whereas most films in that genre are set in later periods. And yet, all of the genre’s elements are here: horses, mules, carriages, pistols and Indians.”
As they are confronted by various troubles along the way, the two characters played by Jones and Swank gradually get to know each other. In his direction Tommy Lee Jones is careful not to give in too much to sentiment, however, so there’s no closeness developing between the two (because people don’t always grow closer together over a period of time, even after spending every waking hour together). The two characters come from such different worlds. Cuddy is bossy and Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) likes his independence.
Primo turns by Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones, all gruff and bear-like, have made discovering “The Homesman” the day’s great pleasure. I reckon Mr. Jones has a fair shot at the directing prize here in Cannes this year. Let’s hope his next film will come sooner.
Also in the credits: Hailee Steinfeld, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter, Meryl Streep and daughter Grace Gummer. The film was produced by Luc Besson.