On the evidence of Tommy Lee Jones's film adaptation, which he co-wrote, directed and starred in, Glendon Swarthout's novel The Homesman is structurally very much a distaff version of Swarthout's breakthrough novel They Came to Cordura. In Cordura a man (Gary Cooper in Robert Rossen's underrated 1959 film version) must escort three Medal of Honor candidates from a Mexican war zone back to the United States. In Homesman a woman (Hilary Swank) conducts three madwomen out of the frontier danger zone and back east across the river to civilization. In both stories, the theoretical border separating good from bad proves porous. In Cordura the Cooper character is an officer disgraced for cowardice who proves himself the better man than the three heroes who, as they near home, reveal themselves as vicious, depraved characters. In Homesman the Swank character's sanity is increasingly brought into question, though her charges remain quite as mad as initially indicated. Swarthout, whose best-known novel remains The Shootist, hints that vices become virtues, or sanity madness, depending on the environment. Once we cross certain borders, both geographic and symbolic, our values may be inverted. The scary part is that both the borders and the values are arbitrary to some extent. The thought may have scared Swarthout more as time passed. The Cordura movie ends on a redemptive note, but Jones's film of The Homesman certainly doesn't.
I haven't seen Jones's first directorial effort but The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is a well-regarded modern western. Working in period this time, he reveals himself a classic stylist with a good eye for the widescreen image and an admirable narrative clarity. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto no doubt helped him a lot but the vision is certainly the director's. He also proves himself a decent actor's director, getting strong performances from an ensemble of more and less familiar names, though Meryl Streep really contributes little more than prestige in a late cameo that really doesn't require much. Jones may get top-billing but everything sets Homesman up as Hilary Swank's picture. If some stars are meteors, Swank is a comet, passing by periodically to pick up an Oscar. She probably deserves at least a nomination this time as Swarthout's heroine, a frontier woman with skills fitted to the frontier -- building up rather than killing -- who as a spinster still feels unfulfilled. Ever since she was heralded as The Next Karate Kid Swank has somehow threatened the balance of genders, and as Mary Bee Cuddy she's the one proposing marriage to men, only to be spurned for her plainness and bossiness. We see that she is bossy, and we can believe that some people on the frontier need bossing. She could be the strange girl from True Grit grown up and lonely -- while Hailee Steinfeld herself has only grown up into a barefoot hotel maid. She could be the lady to Jones's own Rooster Cogburn, but the film's main relationship ends up a cruel, cold mockery of romance. Swarthout may have intended something different for all I know -- the movie makes me want to read the novel and a more thorough survey of Swarthout (he also wrote Where the Boys Are!) may be in order -- but Jones has made not a revisionist western but an anti-western, a film that seems to regard the frontier with nothing but horror as a place that breaks everyone in some way.
Jones's own performance arguably stacks the deck. His great fault as a director may be a certain self-indulgence toward himself. This isn't vanity, since the role of George Briggs allows an actor little vanity, though it apparently allowed Jones so many variations that the character ultimately lacks a coherent personality. Briggs is a squatter or claim jumper whom Mary Bee rescues from a slow-motion hanging -- viglantes have left the man with a noose around his neck on his own reluctant horse -- in return for his service as a guide east. Jones introduces himself in abject, cartoonish fashion after his initial capture. Briggs begs and blubbers while persuading Cuddy to save him, and this makes us expect a clownish figure. He resolves himself into more of a Tommy Lee Jones badass as the journey wears on, and remains a reluctant hero throughout. He faces the classic dilemma whether to abandon the madwomen or not, but his sense of obligation to Cuddy keeps him keeping on. His ordeal appears to ennoble him just as Gary Cooper's trek in They Came to Cordura reveals his true character. But Glendon Swarthout, writing Homesman thirty years after Cordura, apparently didn't believe in redemption as strongly, and Jones definitely believes in it less than Robert Rossen did. Either way, Briggs's redemption is belied by his pryomaniacally disproportionate response to a refusal of service (admittedly at gunpoint) from hotelier James Spader, and his determination to do right by Cuddy is undercut when he learns that she paid him in bank notes from a failed bank. The bank hadn't failed when she set the money aside, but the fact of the failure still leaves him bankrupt after acts of extravagant generosity, and that drives him to drink. Jones takes his leave doing a drunken dance, punctuated by gunfire, on a boat returning him to the other side of the river, while a bit of business I cant describe without spoiling what shouldn't be spoiled cinches Homesman's spot as the feel-bad movie of the holiday season. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and overall Homesman joins the ranks of the 21st century's superior westerns, but Briggs is its weakness because he never seems consistently motivated yet doesn't quite come across, as may have been intended, as just another frontier madman. He's more a collection of cool or extreme Tommy Lee Jones moments, and while this is often and predictably entertaining it makes the movie more chaotic than anyone meant it to be. Given how good the film is as a whole, this may only indicate that Tommy Lee Jones will really prove himself as a director when he stays behind the camera.