After having witnessed the existential tale of immigration and redemption that was The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, the most appropriate response to the prospect of Tommy Lee Jones directing another western was probably the same mixture of apprehension and hope that I felt. While Jones’s homegrown Texan sensibility and lyrical realism effectively turned the American-Mexican border into a strange inhospitable land where no human seems in their place, this sense of unease clashed badly with Guillermo Arriaga’s self-righteous ham-fisted screenplay, which martyrized the titular dead Mexican worker, lionized Jones’s noble ranchman intent on honouring his memory and cheered on his punishment of the selfish irresponsible patrolman who accidentally killed him – and in doing so treated all these characters as political caricatures rather than people.
Ridden of Arriaga’s well-meaning heavy-handed posturing, Tommy Lee Jones corrects his aim with an adaptation of a novel by Glendon Swarthout – a prolific author of the western genre – that effectively de-mythicizes western pioneer life and its romantic appeal but goes much deeper than solemn lecturing about a long-gone time period. Rather, it paints a complex and harshly beautiful picture of womanhood and personal identity by taking the fundamentally American values of self-reliance and independence rightly extolled by classical westerns, applying them to a woman in a specific time, place and situation, and demonstrating their cost and limits. A devout puritan Christian who is also the only female freeholder in a strictly patriarchal settlement and still single despite being on the verge of middle age, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank, surpassing her Oscar-winning performance in Million Dollar Baby) is a self-contradicting anomaly and she knows it. As men repeatedly reminded her, she is “bossy” and “plain as old tin pail”. Yet, unlike Arriaga, Jones and co-screenwriters Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver do not turn her into a martyr of systemic injustice and prejudice; they make her a person who struggles as much against herself as she does against society. She is proud of her independence and makes no apologies for her imposing temperament or her looks, but she cannot repress her sexual urges nor deny her loneliness. This is demonstrated in her first scene, where Mary Bee has dinner with a male neighbor, after which she proceeds to serenade him with an imaginary cloth piano and clumsily propose to him in a way that comes across more as a desperate business offer than a genuine declaration of affection. Tommy Lee Jones builds their interactions up with a patient delicacy that gently peels off each side’s niceties without patronizing them or stereotyping them, even in situations that readily offer opportunities to do so.
Such situations are commonplace in the film’s first act, where the audience is introduced to the three insane women whom Mary Bee volunteers to escort to Iowa. All of them are married mothers and each is in some way a dark reflection of Mary Bee’s desires: Two have lost children – one to diphtheria and the other by her own hand – and the third is repeatedly raped by her husband. These women and their husbands – even the abusive ones – are all played by their actors with understanding and empathy. The monstrosities of which they are either victims or perpetrators, while neither excused nor justified, come across as both translations and consequences of a hyper-patriarchal way of life as applied to settlers in a brutal and isolated land. In other words, they are sacrifices required for the conquest and “civilization” of the West.
In light of how Mary Bee’s journey brings her uncomfortably close to these three women in more ways than one, it is a little disappointing to see their development give way to her coerced partnership with irresponsible outlaw George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones, in a wonderfully deceptive performance that ranks among his best). Indeed, the fact that we consequently get very little of these women’s perspective on what is happening to them can be justly cited as the film’s foremost failing. That being said, Jones does a superb job of visualizing Mary Bee’s decaying psychological state by turning the wide open spaces that John Ford captured so perfectly into endless half-decorated voids. As the troupe moves further and further into their journey, the characters and situation attain a strange, almost mythological quality to them (Briggs’ punishment of a vain and greedy hotelier could pass for a 19th-century transposition of a forgotten passage from the Old Testament) that give the film the feeling of a slow-burning oppressive nightmare from which there is little hope of respite. It is that semi-fantastical dimension that allows Jones to achieve what he failed to do in his directorial debut: A sociopolitical parable that uses western tropes and settings to comment on issues that affect America’s historical and cultural identity but in such a way that the commentary informs the characters’ actions and emotions without dictating them.