The latest in Tommy Lee Jones’ series of revisionist westerns features a wonderful performance from Hilary Swank. She plays a homesteader who is tasked with transporting three women from the frontier back to civilization; these three women, wonderfully played by Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter and, best of all, Grace Gummer, have all been driven to madness by the harshness of life on the prairie. Some of the early scenes of these women and their descents into madness are the best and most disturbing of the film. This is obviously a feminist take on the genre; Swank’s character is a taciturn, quietly determined figure and the job falls to her because, quite simply, none of the men are willing or able to do it, but, as one character tells her, she’s “as good a man” as anyone in the territory. The first half of the film is quite good; it’s harsh and pretty unforgiving, even though Tommy Lee Jones’ performance as a squatter forced to accompany the women is a bit tic-ridden. There’s a really, really wonderful cameo by Tim Blake Nelson, an actor I always love seeing on screen. Unfortunately the movie really loses its way in the last half – the Swank character becomes really inconsistent and the script forces her into several actions that I found really out of character and then she just disappears from the movie for a long time and the Jones character takes the lead role, which isn’t that great, given that she’s the more interesting of the two characters. And the less said about a useless cameo by Meryl Streep and an absolutely awful cameo by James Spader, sporting a dreadful Irish brogue, the better. The film really just becomes muddled and the ultimate point of the film, or what seemed like the point of the film, the plight of women at this period in history, gets lost and the ending essentially seems to posit that none of this mattered in the slightest and, if it didn’t, it’s hard to see why we’re supposed to care. A shame, given the great cast and the really excellent first half and especially Swank’s solid performance, the film ultimately just adds up to a really disappointing experience. A movie with this pedigree should be really good; unfortunately, it all just kind of evens out to average. Recommended against. 2 stars.
tl;dr – when this western focuses on the plight of women on the frontier, it’s gripping and disturbing, but it’s sunk by a loss of focus and poor characterization. 2 stars.