ACTOR and director Tommy Lee Jones turned the western on its head at Cannes with The Homesman, a movie about a perilous journey escorting three women driven mad by frontier life.
The film screened the same day that Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford and other cast members from The Expendables 3 rode into the Mediterranean resort.
The awards, including the top Palme d’Or prize for best picture at the world’s most prestigious film festival, will be given out on Saturday.
Of the main competition films shown since the festival opened on Wednesday, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep and British director Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner are tied with the highest rankings in a compilation of opinions of international critics, both with ratings of 3.6 stars out of a possible 4.
In an early review, The Hollywood Reporter called Jones’s film “an absorbing, melancholy look at the hard lot of women in the Old West”. It co-stars Jones and two-time Best-Actress Oscar winner Hilary Swank.
Based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, The Homesman includes the usual gunfights and hostile Indians, but Jones rejected the idea that the portrayal of native Americans was a “stereotype”.
The people playing the Indians were “all native Americans, they were all of Pueblo descent”, Jones said. Even the costumes they wore were thoroughly researched to help them look like the hostile Pawnees they portray in the movie.
“I’m 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,” he said.
What is unusual is the stark portrayal of the extreme hardships faced by young women trying to survive, raise families and cope with extreme weather and disease.
One of the madwomen had three babies die of diphtheria.
Nebraska, where the movie is set, was “not a really inviting place for a woman of the Victorian era”, Jones said.
Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, an unmarried plainswoman whose farm is successful but who cannot find a husband and agrees to lead the wagon trip to take the madwomen east with Jones.
She said the role showed how resourceful frontier women had to be.
“We’re talking about a time that was extreme in every way,” Swank said. “It was a hard time, a hard place to live.”
Conditions on location in New Mexico during the winter drove home for her how hard life had been.
“When it was cold it was freezing, when it was windy you hands and in your nose and your ears and your mouth,” Swank added.