Tommy Lee Jones’ ‘The Homesman’ and the Pleasures of the Eccentric Western

The label “revisionist Western” has been thrown around for so long that it’s all but meaningless now. From Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch and Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller through Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Jarmusch’s Dead Man to Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, the outlier/atypical exception has become the norm, and these days, the truly daring move would be to make a straight-up oater without the frills. That’s not what Tommy Lee Jones does in The Homesman, but it’s not exactly revisionism either; he’s partaking in a sort of sub-sub-genre, the eccentric Western, and he may be our most accomplished current practitioner of it.

It’s not that Jones’ direction is all that peculiar — indeed, there is a sparseness and simplicity to his style that (much like the films of his contemporary and occasional co-star Robert Duvall) matches his acting. He made his feature directorial debut back in 2005, with the marvelous The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada, a contemporary film firmly rooted in the Western mythos. Set in Texas border country, it has the trimmings of the genre: a Morricone-esque score by Marco Beltrama, an abundance of gorgeously photographed wide vistas, a laconic leading turn by Mr. Jones, a story of rough men living by a perhaps outdated code.

Barry Pepper and Tommy Lee Jones in "The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada"

True to the revisionist style, it scrambles the traditional roles of good and evil: Mike, Barry Pepper’s Border Patrol officer, is a vile asshole who punches a woman runner in the face (complete with an order to “Stay down, bitch!”) and treats his wife so badly that she leaves him while he’s kidnapped (“That sonofabitch is beyond redemption,” she announces). Jones’ Pete Perkins is technically a lawbreaker, but one driven by a pledge to a friend, and there’s little doubt that he is far more moral than the lawman he kidnaps.

But Jones (and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, who also penned 21 Grams and Amores Perros) doesn’t stop there. Pete isn’t just an honorable, man-of-few words protagonist; he’s got a scary, grief-stricken intensity that keeps the audience unsteady. In one of his first scenes, the town sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) asks the quite reasonable question, “Are you crazy?” Pete replies, “No,” and then takes a long, odd, kinda-crazy-person-ish pause before finishing, “I’m not.” And the turns of his story are not the norm, even by revisionist standards; he kidnaps Mike because he killed Pete’s friend and fellow cowboy Melquaides, whom Pete forces Mike to dig up and haul with him back to his hometown in Mexico for a proper burial. But taking a long-dead body on that kind of journey gets, um, messy, so we get oddball scenes where the bloated, decomposing body is doused with lime, subjected to an impromptu embalming with antifreeze, and even lit afire to prevent consumption by maggots.

Such scenes (and the premise itself) drew comparisons to Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia; if Estrada was Jones’ Garcia, then The Homesman is his Ride the High Country, albeit with much more of a feminist twist than Peckinpah ever attempted. Reassembling much of his Melquaides team (including, oddly enough, goofy action auteur Luc Besson, who again produces) and co-writing the script himself (from Glendon Swarthout’s novel), Jones tells the story of Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a wealthy yet unmarried woman in Nebraska territory. “You are too bossy,” she is told by one would-be suitor, “and too plum-damn plain.”

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones in "The Homesman"

But when an outbreak of diphtheria causes the deaths of several children, and three women subsequently “lose their minds,” a volunteer is needed to load them up and take them back to their families. With nothing to lose, Mary Bee volunteers for the job (“You’re as good a man as any man hereabouts,” she’s told); along the way, she picks up a criminal named George Briggs (Jones, making a priceless entrance covered in soot and clad in long underwear) to help on the journey.

So we have an “old-fashioned” moviemaker (and, for that matter, movie star) dipping into an equally “old-fashioned” genre—but Jones has, it’s become clear, an inclination towards scenes and motifs that tilt a bit off-course. There’s an eerie, almost supernatural quality to their journey, from the wagon full of wailing women to unapologetically strange scenes of left-field intimacy and campfire hoedowns. It’s a film of dark, dry humor (much of it provided by Jones’s old-coot line readings; nobody chews on the word “sonofabitch” like he does) and mesmerizing set pieces (the best shows us something we haven’t seen often enough in Westerns: a character getting desperately, hopelessly lost). The result is a picture whose overall vibe is less reminiscent of Stagecoach or even McCabe than Don Siegel’s nutso The Beguiled or Monte Hellman’s recently re-released The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind (while not quite attempting the surrealism of the king of eccentric Westerns, El Topo).

Approaching the classic Westerns can be a tricky bit of business; appreciation of their style and innovation can require either wrestling with or disregarding the generous doses of racism, sexism, and unapologetic machismo that permeate even the best of them. But modern takes like The Homesman can tackle those qualms (as with the case of Mary Bee, the most complicated character in the film) or at least acknowledge them (an elegant scene, late in the picture, where their wagon leaves the frame just as one carrying slaves rolls in). These, among several other factors, tend to limit the audience for new Westerns to the same one that revisits old ones, and that’s a shame. Because if The Homesman proves anything, it’s that there’s no movie that can’t get a shot in the arm from a couple scenes of Tommy Lee Jones hollerin’ and dancin’.

The Homesman is out today in limited release.