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Arts & Entertainment

AFI Fest: Tommy Lee Jones directs haunted, worthy Western 'The Homesman'

Tuesday evening, a new Western directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones premieres at the AFI Film Festival in a gala screening. R. H. Greene, who is filing from AFI Fest for Off-Ramp, saw the movie early so he could give you his thoughts.

We are far enough along in what could be called the Tommy Lee Jones Western Project to know it's an eccentric one.

A passionate amateur historian with a special interest in the history of Texas, Jones' deep knowledge of the Old West seems to drive him toward the margins of the form. With the arguable exception of "Lonesome Dove," Jones simply does not play archetypal Western heroes. Instead, he gives us the half-and-half shaman/cowboy of director Ron Howard's "The Missing," or the fraught and despairing Texas sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the Coen Brothers' downbeat classic "No Country for Old Men."

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These are just the offbeat Westerns Jones has acted in. As a filmmaker, Jones is even more of a genre buster. Jones has directed four projects — three were westerns. They include the TV movie "The Good Old Boys;" the contemporary bordertown drama "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" and Jones' new film, "The Homesman." I haven't seen the TV movie, though its reputation is as a competent and conventional Western exercise. But Jones' two theatrical features as a director are both haunted and specialized works.

"Estrada" uses the device of an undocumented Mexican immigrant, gunned down by a loose cannon border cop, to dramatize the stateless limbo so many of the undocumented find themselves lost in. In life, Melquiades Estrada is a decent and simple man; in death, it's impossible to find the place where he belongs.

Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, "The Homesman" is an even more ambitious movie. For one thing, it's a period drama, with a storyline that's positively gothic: in a small frontier town on the ragged edge of Nebraska, three different women are driven insane over the course of a desperate winter. With their minds broken, the town ejects them like unsuccessfully transplanted tissue; they are to be taken back to "civilization" (in this case, Iowa) and returned to their families. It's a five-week journey, across an ungoverned wasteland. All the task wants is someone foolish enough to take it on.

Enter Hillary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy, a stern spinster who simultaneously exudes brisk efficiency and quiet desperation. Cuddy is the very embodiment of American notions of order, a rigid woman at odds with a wild and barren place, whose iron facade conceals deep emotional fissures. Cuddy needs her illusions but she can't sustain them; in a brilliant bit of business, her hobby is to strike chords on a cloth simulation of a piano keyboard, mimicking the music, and thereby the life, she's failed to make.

WATCH: The trailer for "The Homesman"

It's a complex part, and it's bracing to see Swank — a fine, multi-Oscar-winning actress whose recent career has been an inexplicable blend of undistinguished thrillers and low-budget horror movies — back inside the skin of a character worthy of her gift. Swank's woodcut of a face feels even more of the period than her hooped skirts or the convincing prairie architecture.

As Cuddy sets out alone on the long journey, she encounters George Briggs (Jones), a powder-stained wretch, whimpering on horseback with a noose around his neck. Cuddy frees Briggs from this slow-motion lynching, but for a price: he must accompany her, and her wailing human cargo, across a raw and empty landscape that will test them continuously, both emotionally and physically.

"The Homesman" is a frequently remarkable movie. It's expressively shot by cinematographer Rodrigo  Prieto, whose bloodless compositions lend a kind of biblical dread to the chilly Nebraska sequences. Jones — who not only directs and acts but co-wrote the screenplay — is unafraid to attempt daring structural maneuvers, including hallucination sequences and flashbacks that explain and enrich present events.

For more than half its run time, "The Homesman" plays like a feminist Western. The insane women are broken as much by their subjugated status as by the tragedies they've suffered; a harrowing scene where the brilliant Sonja Richter moves from sewing a shirt to mutilating herself with a needle is Freud's concept of "housewife's psychosis," re-imagined for inclusion in the "Saw" franchise. Swank's Cuddy is so forceful a character that when she reacts to spending a night alone on the plains by bursting into tears, it feels like a betrayal of our trust in her strength.

Jones is a gracious and even a self-mocking director, and a performer who both understands he's a character actor and revels in it. Jones lets Swank take and hold the screen until events force Briggs toward center stage, and he often uses himself as broad comic relief.

Jones' entry into the film is more Wile E. Coyote than John Wayne. Our first glimpse of Briggs — staggering out of a smoking cabin with gunpowder stains all over his face — plays like something out of Keaton's "Our Hospitality," not "Shane."

If Jones' worthy film has a flaw, it's in a surprising place: his own performance. Perhaps Jones was overwhelmed by other responsibilities, or maybe he's such an old hand that the acting part of the job doesn't engage him fully. But there's a disconnect between the arc Jones the writer/director has given to himself and the one Jones chooses to play. Briggs is essentially a tragic figure, a man who blows his one chance at happiness, and then does what he can to atone for the mistake. But there are huge transitional chunks missing from the portrait. Jones starts and ends where he needs to, but the moment to moment erosion that might have provided "The Homesman" with the emotional core it's reaching for isn't always available to him.

Briggs is a sketch of a memorable performance, not the thing itself, which is a disappointment, given how reliable Jones the actor usually is. When this cautious, ungenerous and somewhat ineffectual character suddenly goes all Django in "The Homesman's" third act, it's more cryptic than cathartic; it feels like an imposed plot twist, not the potent human apocalypse Jones means for it to be.

Still, "The Homesman" is worthy, disturbing stuff for the most part, and a film that lingered in my mind far longer than many a more perfect creation ever could. For lovers of the offbeat or Western fanatics, awards season has started with an unexpected treat.