CANNES – Tommy Lee Jones has made a kind of reverse Western with his second directorial effort, “The Homesman.”
“We didn't think about westerns or genre or anything except making a movie about American history from our own point of view,” Jones said in a press conference Sunday after the movie’s press screening at the Cannes Film Festival. “The journey is the inverse of what you usually see in a movie that has wagons and horses in it. And the subject matter is women, insane women, not so-called heroic men.”
In “The Homesman,” Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) takes responsibility for transporting three women who have gone insane on the brutal plains of the North Dakota territory back East, where their families will reclaim them. Along the way she enlists the aid of George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a claim jumper who she rescues from execution solely because she knows she needs help on her journey if she's to make alive.
“She has fortitude, she has good morals,” Swank said of Cuddy. “I think we’ve lost a lot of virtues in our world today, so it was nice to play a character who has strong virtues.”
The strong female role is nothing new for Swank, who has won two Oscars playing tough women in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby.”
“I like real people. I like real women. It’s obviously subjective what people find pretty or not,” Swank said. “I’ve had a lot of people say Maggie Fitzgerald from ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ or Mary Bee Cuddy in this film, are beautiful because they're natural and they’re real.”
Jones said in press notes for the film that he focused on the condition of women in the mid-19th century American West for his film “because I think it’s the origin of the female condition today.”
“I don’t think there’s a woman in this room who has never felt objectified or trivialized because of her gender,” Jones elaborated in the press conference. “And there’s a reason for that, there’s a history of that, and I think that’s an interesting thing [to explore].”
One thing Jones does not find interesting is any notion that Native American are portrayed incorrectly in “The Homesman.” The actors who play Pawnees in the film “are all Native Americans of Pueblan descent,” Jones said. “The costumes were thoroughly researched. I was really proud of the fact that they looked like Pawnees, and not ashamed of the fact that they were considered by our characters to be potentially homicidal. We were not bending the truth at all or stereotyping anybody. That’s the last thing we want to do.”
Swank said the movie asks one basic question of the Western settlers’ plight: “Ultimately, how much can a person take?”
“We’re talking about a time that was extreme in every way,” she said. “It was a hard, hard place to live.”
But Jones points out that where they all came from wasn’t all that great, either.
“[George Briggs] hasn’t met with a warm welcome in so-called civilization,” he said. “And I think we get a glimpse at how uncivilized civilization can be.”