In his moonlighting career as a director of steely, even mulish focus, the perpetually weathered, stern Tommy Lee Jones has taken the Clint Eastwood route of imbibing in the great American traditions, although he does not share Eastwood’s masculine commitment to the Sam Fuller get-in-and-get-out storytelling method. Jones imbibes so much, in fact, that he catches his nation’s favorite tradition, the Western, when the genre is looking the other way with its pants down. In his previous directorial work The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he pursued the sociospatial region of the modern American small-town – a space forever clinging to its past and stubbornly, cantankerously refusing to examine itself – as an avenue for comment on the history of the American imagination.
For The Homesman, Jones has decided to go back to the basics for the real deal. The American West as both tangible, physical region and unctuous mental history looms large over The Homesman, his second theatrically released directorial feature and the one which sees Jones move beyond naturalism and into the harsher, more metrical region of hurtful romanticism. For if we cut The Homesman down to its bare bones, it emerges as a work teetering on the edge of the American tradition, deeply infatuated with the John Fords of the world but knowingly embattled with self-critique. It is a film that is haunted by its love of the Western, and it is a film that knows it is haunted. The piece perpetually fawns over the Monument Valleys of the world and their unobtrusive canvas for the American dreams of rugged, earthen independence. Yet the film also shakes its head as it wanders into that perpetually traditional area of American lore, running head first into the lush, romantic interpretations of the American West so hard that the romantic qualities turn garish and begin to curdle before long. What emerges is something of an anti-Western that pretends to be a Western, a film with ticks and idiosyncracies a mild wide, a perverse waxworks show that exposes the cruelty of Americana with sober diction and an incurable interest in the macabre.
There is a tendency, especially in light of recent deconstructive Westerns in the cinematic tradition, to look to Jones’ work here as an exemplar of an old-dog learning new tricks, but the fact is that Jones, even as an actor in his early days, was heavily invested in the battle between order and chaos in the no man’s land of the American imagination. Shifty-eyed yet stalwart, he never really found an easy answer, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying. In the meantime, he has taken to enhancing the bitters in his Western saloon whiskey to let us know that, until this Western dream is laid to rest once and for all, we might as well step foot into the nightmare and reveal the dirt and grime for all it is worth. There’s a paranoid quality in the undertow of The Homesman, seeping up and gasping for air and falling over itself in the sickly, almost monochromatic crimson of the unforgiving mood lighting that transforms any human figure in its path into an anarchic stump of contrasting diagonal lines of age and disagreement. It is a hell of a film, literally.
It is a welcome fact then that Jones the director knows how to feed Jones the actor the fleshy bits of humanism to keep this devil’s tango from approaching out and out nihilism; this rusted, creaky Americana is the sort of place that the hoarse, throaty soul of Jones the actor slides into like a rock fitting into a hard place. But that alchemic meeting of sore spirits, that battle between the contours of Jones’ craggy wrinkles and the crevices of blood-soiled canyons, is an inspired clash of quiet assassin matched to silent killer. Jones dons the garb of an elderly loner tasked with helped Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) on her quest to return three women (who have crumpled under the oppressive masculine atmosphere and brutality of Western life) to the East coast. He resonates self-pity and lost time, and it is a performance remarkably free of self-love, ceding the hallowed ground to a phenomenal Swank who imbues her character with all the weight and anger of a woman forced to take care of the women that men turned into scraps of litter strewn out on the sand. Scraps that they viewed as trash they were too busy to clean up themselves, and they shifted the task onto who else but another woman.
Ultimately, The Homesman thrives because it walks the tightrope. It is trenchantly aware of itself as cinema, always exploring the possibilities of its love for Westerns of old as it deliberately inserts itself into the Western myths of grandeur and luxuriant latitudinal space with which to romantically plant your stake in life and build your empire. Yet it also uses this awareness to soak up all the cinema it can until it becomes sick on it and must spit those films back out, now perverted and coated in the true heart of this film’s insides, which are much more dispiriting and desolate, much more heartrending and hopeless in their treatment of the American West as a moral no man’s land.
It is a liberating film primarily for this reason, indulging so much in the idea of “The Western” that it can’t but expose itself in the process, growing corpulent and gluttonous with refrains to the traditional West until it doubles back, eats its tail, and finds only desperation in the hope. It is a film which invites consideration of it own traditionalism so that it can pull a devious rug out from under us and knock us down onto the icy, bone-covered canvas it has secretly been painting all along. Just look at the way the embarrassingly talented Mexican cinematographer Rodriego Prieto turns the romantic Western landscape into an austere limbo where rugged individualism curdles into loneliness and gloriously empty nights serve only to hide the worst impulses of humanity. The Homesman’s elusive, at times perplexing, beauty imparts a forlorn, sun-swallowed mystique onto the empty, cadaverous reign of the Old West, playing on Western iconography to emerge with a harsh, taciturn critique of this particular region of the American mindscape.