CANNES - Charged with devising a character name that immediately conveys staunch feminine pluck and perseverance, I'm not sure any writer could do much better than Mary Bee Cuddy -- the disarming heroine of Tommy Lee Jones' handsome, elegiac neo-western "The Homesman," until she rather unsettlingly isn't. Just listen to the way those pithy syllables roll (or march, rather) off the tongue: a Mary Bee Cuddy can only be as square and grounded and business-meaning as a pair of sensible shoes. As played by the eternally purposeful Hilary Swank, moreover, she's an anchor of sincerity in a film in a film that needs one, shifting as it often does from loutish comedy to sticky sentimentality in the turn of a wagon-wheel.
Only superficially, then, is "The Homesman" the directorial follow-up you'd expect to Jones's debut feature "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," a similarly handsome, burnished and serious-minded western that nonetheless exerted far stricter control over its brooding tone. Glendon Swarthout's 1988 novel of the same title was initially picked up for development by Paul Newman, but it's easy to see why it took a quarter-century to make it through the system, representing as it does such an unusual theme for an otherwise rugged example of its genre: the psychological torment and social isolation of women in the Old West. Neither an entirely feminist film nor an especially feminine one, it alternates between the thoughtful and the curt in its treatment of women's issues, but they're never far from center.
The film opens with Cuddy, a former schoolteacher now living a solitary frontierswoman's existence in remote, featureless 1850s Nebraska -- a territory no more flattered here than it was in Alexander Payne's sour skewering of the state last year -- ploughing a field of seemingly infinite dirt. She trudges back to nights of simple suppers and imaginary piano-playing, fingers tapping on a keyboard-printed textile as she sings mournful prairie songs.
Ace cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's dusty-hued compositions are as cleanly framed and perpendicularly aligned as the life Cuddy has built for herself. More than interior comforts or fair weather, she misses the trees back East; Prieto again stresses the region's aggressive flatness in an opening-credit montage of exquisite yawning skies, with not much to speak of beneath. It's an environment severe enough to induce insanity even without the extreme misfortune that pioneer living inflicts on its brave practitioners, so it's not surprising that three particularly mistreated female unfortunates -- among them a mother who loses three children in three days to diphtheria, and a Swedish immigrant persecuted for giving birth to the wrong gender -- go irretrievably off the deep end.
If the American West is no country for old men, it's certainly not one for mad women, as the local priest decides that the only suitable treatment for the involuntary outcasts is to separate them from their families and deport them to an Iowa sanitorium. A volunteer is required to haul them creakily across the Midwest; Cuddy, herself viewed with suspicion by the community due to her unmarried status, steps up. "You're as good a man as any man hereabouts," the priest agrees -- a backhanded compliment to a woman repeatedly turned down by potential suitors for being "bossy and plain as an old tin pail."
But she's not good enough a man, Cuddy herself determines, to weather the plains on her own, as she secures herself a reluctant co-pilot in the self-named George Briggs -- a rascally claim-jumper whom she rescues from execution. Played by the perma-grizzled Jones as a kind of sadder-eyed Rooster Cogburn figure, he's a renegade figure whose introduction takes the film in a predictably, if not appropriately, cockeyed direction. Their odd-couple banter, with the crusty old coot bewildered by the pluckily assertive independent woman, brings a hoary note of farce to proceedings, but also underlines traditional gender hierachy in ways that may or may not be progressively critical.
Is Briggs a suitable suitor for Cuddy or isn't he? She broaches the question before he does -- blame either the storytelling conventions or the still-prevalent sexual politics dictating that she do so, even as she steers a cartful of women to whom family life has brought no more happiness, and considerably less stability, than Cuddy's self-sufficient existence has to her. Either way, his resistance affects Cuddy in a way that Swank's compellingly needly performance can't quite make ring true -- forcing a radical shift in the film's perspective that is as disconcerting as it is striking.
Swank, an actress often unfairly dinged by detractors for relying on a hardness that Hollywood rarely finds imaginative ways to exploit, is in fine fettle here. Ever a stern, empathic performer, she conveys Cuddy's decency and concern for others in a way that makes especially heartbreaking the lack of love she receives in return. But I wonder if Jones' film is among the majority that turns against her, too often playing her earnestness for laughs, and her insecurities as female hysteria not a world away from that of her shaking, shrieking wards.
With its jocular tonal swerves, and a finale dominated by Briggs' jigging, shooting antics, Jones' film finally reverts to the western's status quo, stowing its female characters away as the Nebraskan plainsmen do their troubled, troubling wives. Perhaps there's a deliberate irony to that callousness; as taciturn and impressively composed as Mary Bee Cuddy herself, "The Homesman" isn't letting on.