I need to get something off my chest: I'm not a fan of Tommy Lee Jones. I find him limited in range, much the same in most roles and, worst of all, he inexplicably won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Fugitive, thus depriving Pete Postlethwaite for In the Name of the Father, Leonardo Di Caprio for What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Ralph Fiennes for his performance of pure evil as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List. In modern parlance, WTF?
But periodically, just occasionally, once in a while, he inhabits the screen in a manner that forces one to reconsider one's judgment. And so it is with The Homesman.
The Homesman is something of a surprise, and not just because Tommy Lee Jones is on remarkable form in it. Beyond a fine performance, the man writes, directs and co-produces it. Hell's bells, when did he become so damn good at everything?
In the bad old days of the pioneers in the Wild West, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) steps in when three women drift into various states of madness and need to be transported across the country to be cared for properly. Shunned by their husbands, denied help from the town's menfolk and at a time where rape and murder hides behind every outcrop of rock and every gnarled cactus, Cuddy sets off alone on her hazardous journey. She stumbles across George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a drifter seated atop his horse, with a noose around his neck, waiting for his steed to grow bored and leave him hanging. Literally. Cuddy offers to save him on the condition that he accompanies her and so begins a particular kind of journey.
The Homesman is probably described by many as a western, but that's lazy. This is a road movie on horseback, a saunter across the plains, a journey through mistrust and emotions where a mistake or misplaced trust will result in death. It is a story of hope and love, not the romantic kind, but real love for one's fellow human being, regardless of whether they can, or will, reciprocate.
Shot beautifully with sprawling, dusty vistas that warm the heart and prickle the nape, the backdrop is a vast canvas of character and mystery upon which splashes of colour are smeared in the shape of wandering, human dangers.
Though they say little, the trio of women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) are far more than peripheral characters or the MacGuffin; they are the substance that binds The Homesman and the reason for the drama, gentle though it is. As we saw in Mr. Turner, such characters can so easily become pantomime animals with over performance that slaps the viewer in the face and detracts from the whole, of which they are but a small part. Not so here. Grace Gummer, particularly, as the mostly mute but vacantly animated Arabella is terrific and we want to reach into the screen and gently push her back towards sanity. It is a beautiful, understated performance that remains in mind long after the event.
Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank make a surprising double act but the chemistry is there in abundance. Both Cuddy and Briggs carry their own needs and daemons with them; neither would give the other a second glance ordinarily but circumstance prompts odd, emotional couplings and theirs is fraught with suspicion and obligation. It is fantastic to see Swank back to the form that brought her gongs and made us sit up and watch in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby. This is a far less demonstrative performance, but no less steely or impactful because of it.
Tommy Lee Jones's performance is the most compelling, engrossing that I can recall. Beyond that, his direction is worth celebrating loudly. The Homesman is only his second feature as director (after 2006's wonderful but little seen The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) but there are hints that he may step into Clint Eastwood's shoes alongside Ben Affleck and Sean Penn. Just when we think we have the measure of this tale, he belts us sharply around the jowls, proving he has the mettle to surprise and shock us out of our complacency.
Maybe, after years and years of apparently coasting, broodily on film and staring into space, it will transpire he was merely absorbing, waiting for the moment to own both sides of the screen and captivate us.
You know what, maybe he's always been this good but I just didn't see it.
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