Driven to Madness, by Scott Nye
Because of his rather droll acting style, it can sometimes be difficult to gauge whether Tommy Lee Jones, even at his best, is performing in any way, or if his natural manner of speaking just results in a compelling performance. That question is unlikely to be raised in The Homesman, his latest feature as co-writer and director. In it, he plays George Briggs, an Old West drunk and a claim-jumper, nearly hanged until he’s saved by Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), an unmarried, land-owning woman who has volunteered to transport three insane women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, and Sonja Richter) from Nebraska to a relatively posh community in Iowa, where they might stand a better chance at getting some decent care. She has determination to spare, but not the experience of charting such a trail, and though Briggs is a drunk, a liar, and a generally pitiful man, he is her best bet at safely making the journey.
Mary Bee, though capable enough, is not the warmest person, and conducts every conversation – marriage proposals, prayer, idle chit-chat – like a business conversation, outlining the clear advantages and disadvantages to each situation and insisting she has the clearer perspective on the matter. She is well past the age at which most women at the time marry, so the direct approach is the only one she’s got. Even the piano-key cloth she carries around, in lieu of an actual instrument she either cannot afford or which cannot be delivered to her rural farm, has a sort of ridiculous practicality to it, as though she simply decided she could not be without even an illusion of accompaniment and saw to it that she wouldn’t. If it sounds like a part tailor-made for Swank’s aggressive strengths, well, so be it, but she excels nonetheless, especially as the confidence she projects is continuously tested by the realities of the trail. Swank lets just enough vulnerability peek through to let us know how scared Mary Bee truly is, but not enough that the character completely risk her composure.
Jones directs the film with the sort of inquisitive caution that so sharply defined modern westerns like The Proposition and True Grit, marveling as much in the strangeness of the Old West as its beauty, and observing the way simple discussions can quickly turn violent with little more than the wrong inflection. Boasting some of the finer wide shots I’ve seen all year (when, with Mr. Turner, The Rover, Calvary, and Force Majeure, great master shots are hardly in short supply), Jones establishes the physical and emotional space his characters will inhabit, letting the ensuing scene play with both. Mary Bee’s farm is established as thriving, robust, comforting places, only to reveal her loneliness, desperation, and anxiety regarding her future.
As good as both the leads are, Jones rounds out his cast with an impressive array of supporting players, including James Spader, John Lithgow, Hailee Steinfeld, William Fichtner, Tim Blake Nelson (who gets easily the film’s most entertaining scene), Barry Corbin, Jesse Plemons, and Meryl Streep’s best work in maybe a decade. The scenes establishing the nature and extent of the women’s (Otto, Gummer, and insanity are more than a little terrifying, often shockingly violent in a way that adds an element of horror not often seen in Western films. It’s an austere, unsettling, yet often lively look at an often too-romanticized period in American history.