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Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank star in 'Homesman'

Tommy Lee Jones directs himself and Hilary Swank in a western about a woman (Swank) who transports three mentally ill housewives to civilization.

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank in "The Homesman," a film that centers around the wagon-transport of three women driven mad by pioneer life.
Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank in "The Homesman," a film that centers around the wagon-transport of three women driven mad by pioneer life.Read more

FOR ABOUT an hour, "The Homesman" is a pretty good western.

It's a "True Grit"-ish story of Mary Bee (Hilary Swank), a sturdy, religious woman on the Nebraska frontier who is a prosperous rancher but "plain as a tin bucket," and therefore unable to improve her prospects and property via marriage.

She is also deeply Christian, and so she volunteers for a project too tough for her less-devout fellows - transporting three mentally disturbed frontier housewives back to civilization, also known as Iowa.

"The Homesman" has been hailed as a feminist western, and because of that you expect the "insanity" of the three women to be revealed as a reaction to repression.

But, no, the women really are insane - in the throes of full psychotic breaks. Shrieking, wailing, biting. They need to be shackled. Also bathed and supervised in the bathroom, except the bathroom is the open plains.

Mary drives them across the trackless, perilous prairie in a rolling jailer's wagon, a journey that is itself so dangerous as to seem borderline crazy.

She has two things on her side - her abiding faith, and the assistance of Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones, who directed), a full-on heathen with experience in the baser aspects of survival. He's a drunk and a claim-jumper and a mercenary, but can handle a gun and a horse, and Mary essentially owns him - she will pay him, but he can collect only at the bank in the town of their destination (Hebron, a bit of a spoiler for those who paid attention during Bible study).

So far, so good. Jones gets the atmosphere of the scenario right - he underscores the strangeness of the mission by placing the little convoy against the vast (and vastly indifferent) empty plain.

And there is an instructive contrast between Mary's New Testament belief system and Briggs' selfish, anything-for-a-buck view of the world.

But as they approach their destination, Mary does something so wildly out of character, it renders the preceding efforts to establish her character nonsensical. That's bad enough, but her actions cause Tommy Lee to respond with his own unconvincing transformation.

It's still lively and atmospheric (helped by cameos from James Spader and Meryl Streep), but the performer who's drawn us into this story is Swank, and the movie, or the story, subverts her work.