Wedged somewhere in between social realist dramas, biopics and Hollywood satires in Cannes this year is this Western by Tommy Lee Jones, who makes a sort-of-comeback into the filmmaking scene after his debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada nearly a decade ago (which won him Best Actor and Best Screenplay for Guillermo Arriaga) and regains his artistic legitimacy after the Internet has memed his humourless face to death that was briefly captured in an Oscar night a few moons ago. The Homesman, at least the first 60 minutes of it, is what you might call a return to dignity and form, lobbing an unexpectedly melancholic, fiercely feminist picture that’s somewhat rare in the Western genre. There’s also an ummistakable touch of John Huston’s The African Queen, with Hilary Swank and Jones himself standing in for Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart as a mismatched duo trekking across the treachorous Nebraskan plains instead of the canoeing along the Congo river.
The first half would probably appeal to Jane Campion, who’s doing jury president duty this year, with its quietly subversive, feminist yarn – wherein Hilary Swank’s self-sufficient yet loveless Mary Bee Cuddy volunteers to carry out the unenviable mission to chaperone three mentally ill women across the Nebraska into Iowa while the hesitant, good-for-nothing men in her town surreptitiously wanted to get rid of their insane wives. But that’s all too soon laid to waste as this claim of feminism gets ultimately eviscerated by an unsteady and uneven writing. Halfway through, The Homesman inexplicably marches into broad, silly territory when Jones squeezes the juice out of the road-movie buddy comedy that this film morphs into, indicative of its tonal indecision, drawing cringing laughs from Hilary Swank’s spinster-in-the-making, whose obsession with marriage is the stuff bad romantic comedies are made of.
The film is strong when it tries to subvert conventional Western tropes and fiercely indicates the stark individualism of Swank’s character – but as soon as she hits the road, along with Jones’ titular company Briggs, the film begins to creak uncomfortably. It doesn’t help that the three wives driven to insanity have nothing much else to do other than act like your typical loony bin types, and Swank’s obsession with marriage, while poignant at first, is treated like a laughing matter in the latter half. There’s a scene where Cuddy, deperate and despondent, pleads the grizzled, reluctant Jones to hit the sack and tie the knot with her that’s crippingly embarrassing (or unintentionally hilarious), flushing down whatever ferocity the material has been flagging prior to this moment. Jones, while terrifically po-faced and quietly vindictive at times, also coerces gallows humour in a few scenes that goes against the sombre tone of the story. If there are some grace notes, they include Rodrigo Prieto’s stunning photography and Meryl Streep’s brief appearance, but those aren’t enough to save the picture entirely. What The Homesman sorely lacks is a dramatic punch and a much better conclusion.