Bil’s rating (out of 5): B.5. France/USA, 2014. EuropaCorp, Ithaca, The Javelina Film Company. Screenplay by Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. Produced by Luc Besson, Peter Brant, Brian Kennedy. Music by Marco Beltrami. Production Design by Merideth Boswell. Costume Design by Lahly Poore. Film Editing by Roberto Silvi. Cannes Film Festival 2014. Phoenix Film Critics Awards 2014. Toronto International Film Festival 2014.
Three women are driven mad by the hardships of carving out a life on the unforgiving terrain of the mid-nineteenth century American frontier, prompting their husbands to send them back east to their families. Hilary Swank plays an independent farmer who volunteers to be their escort, along the way taking on the assistance of an old coot outlaw (Tommy Lee Jones, who also directs) to assist her on the weeks-long voyage. With the three women (Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter, Miranda Otto) tied up in the back and the two guides up front driving, the group encounter obstacles of all kind, including the harsh weather, conflict with native Indians and the danger that the women are constantly posing to each other and themselves. With such a setup, and some fascinating sequences like Jones taking revenge on an inhospitable inn or Meryl Streep appearing as a kindly pastor’s wife in the conclusion, and with this cast and director involved, this entire operation should be a guaranteed classic but, shockingly, it’s terrible. Jones directs with a completely pompous attitude of Meaning and Poignancy in every scene, getting the worst performance out of the always reliable Swank that she has given in years. The character’s vulnerability (that she takes such good care of herself but is lonely) never comes off as genuine, and her moments of tenderness to the ladies in her charge are cloying and contrived (as is her appearance, with an overdone makeup job to make her look as “plain” as they keep calling her). The heartbreaking women who inspire the tale in the first place are shallow constructions of character (which might be why Swank’s investment in them reads so falsely), failing to indicate the dark underbelly of the myth of forging civilization in the great western territories, and making for a conclusion that is not the least bit earned. Even Streep reads as a total amateur in her few moments in this clunky misfire, one that hopes to be a memorable western with the lives of women as its theme the way Unforgiven was, but can’t even measure up to The Quick And The Dead.