Striking, desperately sad western directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones
Since Clint Eastwood hung up his holster those of us who love westerns thank Tommy Lee Jones for keeping the genre alive. That's not to say his second directorial effort, eight years after his fine debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, is any kind of familiar rootin’-tootin’ shoot 'em up or man-in-need-of-redemption quest. The eponymous character is an irredeemable reprobate, and that’s just the way he likes it.
George Briggs (Jones) is a claim jumper whose seizure of a homestead is about to get him hanged when plainswoman Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) intervenes. She's in need of a neanderthal to assist her on a long, dangerous journey escorting three madwomen from a relentlessly austere Nebraska to a haven in green and pleasant Iowa. Grudging respect grows between the filthy rascal and the dignified, resourceful and achingly lonely spinster. But if this sounds like The African Queen meets Rooster Cogburn, be aware that flashes of sardonic humour and painful poignancy are to be gratefully received in a sombre, grim, frequently horrific depiction of the pioneer experience.
You absolutely get why the shackled trio of tragic women have lost their minds. This is a story of courage and true grit but also despair, energised by striking visuals, shocking twists and stings in the telling. It’s also enlivened by a string of meaty cameos (John Lithgow, William Fichtner, James Spader and Meryl Streep amongst them), as the party encounter the good but mostly the brutally bad and the ugly. Swank is heartbreaking and Jones is masterful as the quixotic, cantankerous ne’er-do-well of unpredictable impulses.
The source for this dour western is startling: the late novelist Glendon Swarthout is best known for the daddy of teen fling tales Where the Boys Are. But he also wrote The Shootist, which provided an elegiac farewell for John Wayne. If Jones never makes another western this will stand as an offbeat, original, hauntingly memorable piece.
General release from Fri 21 Nov.