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Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank saddle up in The Homesman

There are so few bigscreen Westerns these days that The Homesman is something of a rarity. This beautifully crafted, sharply etched outing may not revive the genre, and calling it one of the best Westerns of the 21 st century seems scarcely an honor given its lack of competition. Yet that’s what it is.

Adapted from Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel by screenwriters Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver and director/leading man Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman is a gift for Western fans. The film has a dusty lyricism, both in its pithy dialogue and Rodrigo Prieto’s spectacular cinematography.

Marco Beltrami’s score is also a major accoutrement. This is a pure Western in the best sense of the term.

Hilary Swank (never better) plays Mary Bee Cuddy, a spinster in the Nebraska territory during the 1850s who takes it upon herself to transport three women (Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter and Grace Gummer) who, for lack of a more specific diagnosis, have gone mad. To accompany her on this arduous journey to Iowa, she secures the services, so to speak, of George Briggs (Jones), an itinerant wanderer and drunkard whom she saved from hanging.

The isolation and day-to-day drudgery of frontier life and the treacherous trek are well captured by Jones, whose singular achievement is in capturing the look, feel and texture of the Old West. As an actor, he’s in familiar territory here as a loner underneath who’s gruff, grizzled exterior beats, if not one of gold, a human heart. The role vaguely recalls his legendary performance as Capt. Woodrow F. Call in the 1989 mini-series Lonesome Dove, although Briggs’ sense of duty and honor are a bit more flexible.

Swank is a formidable partner. Her Mary Bee Cuddy’s piety and resilience mask a deep-rooted insecurity that manifests itself in one of the film’s more shocking (and best unrevealed) turn of events.

So persuasive and pervasive is The Homesman that no one seems at all out of place, not even Meryl Streep (Gummer’s real-life mother), who turns up briefly as a kind-hearted minister’s wife. John Lithgow, Hailee Steinfeld, William Fichtner, James Spader and Barry Corbin (the very embodiment of a Western character) all make impressions, even in small roles, but the most vivid appearance is that of Tim Blake Nelson as “The Freighter,” a grubby thug who attempts to make off with one of the women and instead comes up against Briggs. (A fatal mistake, indeed.)

The Homesman is scheduled to open Friday at A/perture Cinema, Winston-Salem

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