Genre: Drama, Western
Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto
It’s nearly 10 years since Tommy Lee Jones directed his last feature film, but given the quality of his output, one can’t help wishing he were more prolific. Against vast backdrops of beauty, he crafts intimate examinations of loneliness that originate from both physical distance and psychological isolation. His aspirations are spirited, his execution superb, and his results are spellbinding.
This is not your typical tale of life in the Old West. Though the juxtaposition of Marco Beltrami’s gently sweeping score and the awe-inspiring landscapes, beguilingly photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, effortlessly evoke memories of William Wyler’s The Big Country, Jones’ interpretation of the genre is something altogether more revisionist.
Despite what the title suggests, the focus of this story is a woman named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), an isolated middle-aged spinster who runs a farm on the Midwestern Frontier. After three of the women in her small town are driven to insanity following a harsh winter, Cuddy nominates herself to transport them across the country so that they may be cared for at a church in Iowa. On route she encounters a low-life drifter and claim jumper named George Briggs (Jones), whom she employs to assist her on journey.
From behind the lens, Jones convincingly crafts a raw and realistic vision of life in the Old West. He vividly captures the harsh horror of pioneer life, where battling the unforgiving elements eventually causes you to loose all hope, through the devastating performances of Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter as the three women pushed beyond the brink by the hardships felt. Although, it must be said that the constant use of flashbacks showing their gradual mental dissents feels both jarring to the pace and narratively redundant. Meanwhile, the long-standing feuds and countless threats that have plagued many a Wild West journey are all present and accounted for, but admirably never used to such an excessive extent that they distract us from the narrative’s core.
For all of the above is simply there to help Jones harness the right atmosphere, his main interest is something far more audacious. With his gaze resting almost solely upon Cuddy as she propels the narrative forward, Jones allows his audience to engage with the largely unexplored battles faced by the fairer sex who settled in the American Midwest during the mid-1800s. At the heart of the film is Hilary Swank’s quietly commanding performance, which superbly captures the brave and determined mind-set of an independent woman who’s far stronger than many believe and who will stop at nothing to prove herself. With the help of Jones magnificently muted script, Swank creates a richly layered character heartbreakingly searching for a soul mate that sees her for the beautiful woman she is, and not the plain Jane they all consider her to be.
A sudden third-act twist arguably prohibits Jones from making the feministic Western he aspires to create, but it does allow him to once more settle his focus on the driving theme of loneliness, from which he draws great poignancy. Against the baron background of the Midwest, the director forges a film that proves such genre pictures are capable of doing more than just telling stories of men who shoot from the hip. Lets just hope it isn’t too long before Jones treats us to his directorial prowess once again.