Greetings again from the darkness. We have come to expect our Westerns to be filled with stoic heroes and nasty villains, but this film delivers a pious, yappy leading lady paired with a selfish, no frills drifter. Based on the 1988 novel from Glendon Swarthout, it’s also the second directorial outing from Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005).
Hilary Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a name repeated so many times that it will surely stick with you … even if the movie doesn’t. Thirty-one years old and unmarried, Ms. Cuddy is not without talent. She works the plough horses, cooks up fried chicken, and plays a mean fake piano. As is pointed out to her a couple of times, she is also “bossy” and “plain” looking … neither trait especially appealing to men in the wild west.
Ms. Cuddy volunteers to take three local women to Iowa. The three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) have each gone insane, and somehow Iowa is the most civilized place within a wagon ride’s distance. Cuddy teams up with a low-life drifter played by Tommy Lee Jones, after they strike a deal that allows him to escape certain death. The verbal clash of cultures and personality between the two main characters provides most of the action on screen, as the three women being escorted are mostly muted and either locked in the back of the wagon or tied to a wagon wheel during riding breaks.
The film is at its best when focusing on the harsh realities of frontier life. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) does a nice job of capturing the wide expanse and stark vastness of the landscape, while also tossing in some artsy silhouettes and proof of abruptness of this life. Director Jones utilizes some haphazardly timed flashbacks to help us better understand the plight of the three women, but this could have been done much more effectively. Courage, inner-strength, and morality all play a role here, and the contrast between frontier and civilization was most distinct.
Much of the film plays like an oddball buddy picture – think Nolte and Murphy in 48 Hours, or Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. If you find the interaction between Swank and Jones to be realistic, then you will probably buy into the whole film. If not, the lack of flow and choppiness of scenes will jump out. There seems to be a never ending stream of little more than cameos from a tremendous line-up of actors: Barry Corbin, William Fichtner, Jesse Plemons, David Dencik, Evan Jones, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Hailee Steinfeld. There are even a couple of scenes near the end featuring Meryl Streep (her daughter Grace Gummer plays one of the 3 insane women). The slew of familiar faces actually detracted from the story for me, because the Swank and Jones characters just couldn’t hold my attention.
The ending seems quite odd and a bit out of place for what we have just watched, and I’m still confused by the line of dialogue addressing the difficult “winter” they must have had on the wagon trip … it’s clearly stated that the trip began in May and would take a few weeks. Even in Nebraska, May and June can’t be considered winter. If you enjoy Hilary Swank on a soapbox or Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig, then perhaps the pieces will fit better for you than they did for me.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by a long, mostly uneventful wagon trip where 3 of the 5 people don’t speak and one rarely shuts up.
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Tommy Lee Jones dancing a jig (twice) or Hilary Swank playing air piano just aren’t enough to pull you away from holiday shopping.
watch the trailer: