There is a prescient shot that opens "The Homesman," the spare frontier drama starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones. A flat stretch of Nebraska plain, a blanket of blue-gray sky, as if God himself had drawn a straight line between Heaven and Earth.
It is haunting, that endless empty expanse. Jones, who also directs, keeps the focus there long enough to get you thinking. Veteran cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, with an Oscar nod for capturing the interplay between man and the environment so beautifully in "Brokeback Mountain," does the shooting. Between them, landscape becomes language.
It speaks in anger — wind, snow and dust in cold gusts cutting against this ambitious yet fractious adaptation of Glendon Swarthout's novel. Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver wrote a screenplay that tries to wrestle Swarthout's rangy, complex book into a lean affair. They don't always succeed.
Out of that beginning void, Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) emerges like a Depression-era photo. Plain as the dirt she's plowing, a strong face to match her strong back. Wind whips the long prairie dress against mud-crusted boots. The mules, the plow and the woman fight to break the soil. The earth is hard in fighting back; it has wounded all of its women deeply. In this small slice of life on the Nebraska frontier in 1855, they too are turning wild.
That is "The Homesman's" story. At one farm after another, mothers are losing children, rejecting husbands, going mad. The local reverend (John Lithgow) has made arrangements for an Iowa minister's wife (Meryl Streep) to take them on. Arabella (Grace Gummer), Theoline (Miranda Otto) and Gro (Sonja Richter) each have their own brand of insanity rooted in the losses of children, of love, of hope.
An old prison wagon and a mule team is donated for transport. All that is needed is a driver. The men can't leave their farms or are not to be trusted with women on the trail. Mary Bee, as religious as she is resilient, steps in.
This leads to her intervention in the hanging of a claim jumper, George Briggs (Jones). Mary Bee saves him in exchange for help getting to Iowa, and the real journey and struggle of "The Homesman" begins.
Though the trip is the framework, the interactions among Mary Bee, the women and Briggs are what keep up the forward momentum. At times, Jones is able to extract a richly detailed narrative and angst-ridden performances out of this classic fight to tame an uncultivated bit of dirt. At other moments, "The Homesman" breaks apart like the earth under Mary Bee's plow.
The film's difficulties are in the roiling emotions that run through it. Intimacy and the interdependence required to survive a harsh environment are more easily achieved. Swank and Jones, in particular, are a very good odd couple, playing saint and sinner, sometimes reversing the roles. Late in the film Hailee Steinfeld steps in opposite Jones, as barefoot barmaid Tabitha, and fairly literally steps into Mary Bee's shoes. The give and take between these characters and actors make for fine watching.
Authentic, organic madness is harder to come by, more than vacant looks, spitting, self-mutilation. It takes time to establish the various aberrations of the women, which the novel had and the film does not. There is a real estate interlude that, even with the delightfully arrogant James Spader as a despicable developer, feels out of sync with the rest of the film, which is staged in a world otherwise made extremely real by a crack crew, including production designer Merideth Boswell, costume designer Lahly Poore and an wind-and-natural-sound-driven score by composer Marco Beltrami.
Jones has a better brand of old coot in George Briggs than he's had in a while. Briggs is a wily creature, hard one moment, then like a crazed man, breaking into a jig the next. The shifts between dark and light are stark. It's as if Jones, the director, decided he'd given us all the Depression we could handle, so he asks Jones, the actor, to use Briggs' antics to give us a break. Sometimes he's right about the comic relief, sometimes not. But dark or light, wrong or right, the Oscar winner (for 1993's "The Fugitive" ) slips easily into Briggs' curmudgeonly skin.
This is the actor's second time in the director's chair, "The Homesman" doesn't sit quite as comfortably as his debut, 2005's "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," which was a long-winded but linear tale of retribution and redemption involving two men, not nearly as many moving parts and emotional complexities to manage.
What the directing side of Jones does best is to cede the spotlight to his star. He builds a strong platform for Swank to take on yet another woman who refuses to be bound by gender conventions. This particular body of work began with her heartrending breakthrough in 1999 as a transgender teen in "Boys Don't Cry." She would win her first Oscar. The next came in 2005 for another heart-breaker, the doomed female boxer in Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby."
Mary Bee is cut from the same cloth. Swank brings a kind of hardness to Mary Bee that shores up the pragmatic plainswoman's inherent strength. The actress' angular face, sculpted cheekbones and chin primed for defiance can also dissolve in remarkably vulnerable ways. Mary Bee demands both.
"The Homesman" may sound like a title conferred on a man, and George Briggs may be driving the wagon. But it is Mary Bee's persistence and prayers that carry the women, and the film, flawed as it sometimes is, home.
MPAA rating: R for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity
Running time: 2 hours
Playing: ArcLight Hollywood; the Landmark, West Los Angeles