I still haven't seen 2005's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the big-screen directorial debut of Tommy Lee Jones (he had directed one HBO movie before that and has directed one since). I meant to at the time of its release, as it was regularly compared to Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a great fucking movie with a great fucking Warren Oates performance. I always meant to. It just never happened.
On the strength of his latest directorial effort The Homesman, I plan to rectify that immediately. It is a great western that might just be a brilliant western, deserving of mention in the same sentence as revisionist westerns like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Proposition. It's the kind of movie we all hoped Clint Eastwood would be making in the wake of Unforgiven. Instead he's making Hereafter and Jersey Boys. Let's be thankful for that old grouch Tommy Lee Jones.
The Western has always been a male-dominated genre: directed by male filmmakers, starring male actors and telling stories about male characters with male concerns. Yes, there's the occasional Meek's Cutoff, but balancing that out is garbage like Bad Girls, which is just a shitty male western that swaps in prostitutes and vaginas. The Homesman is still a "masculine" movie, for lack of a better word -- spare and macho and craggy (an extension of its director) -- but one which concerns itself a great deal with the treatment of women during the period. It does not have nice things to say. In fact, it has only terrible things to say but never becomes preachy. Jones' direction and the script (by Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver and Jones) present everything in a matter-of-fact way -- so matter-of-fact, actually, that some of the biggest turns in the movie are presented no differently from that which is mundane. They actually gain power in that way; without the swelling score and stylistic flourishes and the huge emotional reactions, the moments remain brutal and haunting. This movie punched me in the stomach more than once.
It's mostly the Jones and Swank show, though, which I would have told you I was uninterested in just two hours before seeing The Homesman. They prove me wrong. Jones barely needs to act in a movie like this; he can just show up and let his weathered face, grumpy demeanor and sad eyes do all the work for him. His work in this movie is more than that, though, and he gives George Briggs more dimension than this character would get in almost any other movie (even if he was still played by Tommy Lee Jones), especially in the film's final third. It's Swank who really resonates, though, infusing Mary Cuddy with strength and tremendous dignity but also unbearable loneliness and pain. From her first scene to her last, she breaks your heart. Despite being a two-time Oscar winner, Swank has struggled to find her place in Hollywood during the 2000s; she's usually either miscast in big studio projects (P.S. I Love You, The Reaping, The Black Dahlia) or doing misbegotten "prestige" projects like Amelia. Her work in The Homesman is a reminder of why she won those two Oscars in the first place. She's so great.
A Million Ways to Die in the West but never managed to really explore). There's very little of that in The Homesman, which carries the genre in its marrow but is also willing to reflect on it in ways that are far less than reverential.
I loved The Homesman. It is a sad movie and a bleak one, but such is the story of America it has chosen to tell. It's a flawed movie, but the best kind of flawed movie -- one that overreaches and which cares about a group of people that are underrepresented and whose terrible treatment has been ignored by our American myths. It's an interesting thing: there are so few Westerns made these days that when one finally does come along, it's usually from a filmmaker who cares a great deal about the genre or who has a very specific story that can only be told in this framework. Both can be said of The Homesman. It's a movie that's getting ignored during this end-of-year awards rush, and that's a shame. It's a special film, and a beautiful one.