Cannes Check 2014: Tommy Lee Jones’ ‘The Homesman’

Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up, one of the starrier entries in the lineup: Tommy Lee Jones' “The Homesman.”

The director: Tommy Lee Jones (American, 67 years old). Well, you know — it's Tommy Lee Jones. The Texas-born, Harvard-educated actor began his acting career on Broadway, and landed his first film role in the 1970 smash “Love Story” before beginning a five-year stint on the soap opera “One Life to Live.” His big-screen breakthrough came in the 1980 Oscar winner “Coal Miner's Daughter”; he picked up an Emmy for one of several TV movies he made in the decade, and his first Oscar nod in 1992 for “JFK.” The win came two years later for “The Fugitive,” launching him as a headlining star in such films as “Men in Black.”

A ranch owner who earned his western spurs with the likes of “Lonesome Dove” and “The Missing,” he dipped into the genre for his first theatrical directorial effort, Cannes winner “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”; two years later, his starred in “No Country for Old Men” and picked up his third Oscar nod for “In the Valley of Elah”; a fourth came last year for “Lincoln.” “The Homesman” is his second feature film as a director. (He has also directed two TV films: “The Good Old Boys” and the Cormac McCarthy-scripted “The Sunset Limited.”)

The talent: As in all his behind-the-camera work to date, Jones also stars in the film — making him the only director in Competition this year to do so. The title character, however, is played by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, looking to get back on track after a run of lukewarm-at-best projects. The supporting cast includes Jones' “Hope Springs” co-star Meryl Streep (whose daughter, Grace Gummer, also features) and his “Lincoln” co-star James Spader — evidently, Jones was casting around on his 2012 projects. Teen actress Hailee Steinfeld, who knows this genre terrain quite well after scoring an Oscar nod for “True Grit,” also stars, as do Miranda Otto, John Lithgow, William Fichtner, Tim Blake Nelson and Jesse Plemons.

The film marks Jones' second writing credit, after his 1995 TV film “The Good Old Boys”; he adapted Glendon Swarthout's novel with two similarly unseasoned scribes, Kieran Fitzgerald and former assistant Wesley Oliver. Jones is also one of five producers; others include French action merchant Luc Besson, who recently directed Jones in “The Family.” (The actor may have a reputation for crustiness, but he clearly knows how to make allies on set.) The Mexican Oscar nominee Rodrigo Prieto (best known for his collaborations with Ang Lee and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu) is the cinematographer. Two-time Oscar nominee Marco Beltrami (“3:10 to Yuma,” “The Hurt Locker”) composed the score; he returns from “Melquiades Estrada,” as do editor Roberto Silvi and production designer Merideth Boswell. Costume design Lahly Poore, an assistant on such films as “Titanic” and the western “Appaloosa,” here takes her highest-profile feature credit to date. 

The premise: Highly acclaimed in western genre circles, Glendon Swarthout's 1988 novel has been in development for some time — Paul Newman originally snapped up the rights, and it's easy to see how the material would have appealed to him. Set in the mid-19th century, the story centers on Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank), a headstrong pioneer woman and former schoolteacher who is charged with the task of escorting three women — all deemed clinically insane — from Nebraska to a sanatorium in Iowa. Unwilling to carry out the arduous mission alone, she enlists shifty claim-jumper George Briggs (Jones) to help her. The premise carries faint echoes of Kelly Reichardt's “Meek's Cutoff,” while the film looks refreshingly female-focused for its genre, with a leading role that plays to Swank's steely strengths. The trailer, meanwhile, promises ravishingly desolate landscape work from Prieto. (The benchmark for Swarthout screen adaptations, incidentally, was set by Don Siegel's “The Shootist.”) 

The prestige: Jones may not have auteur cachet, but his first feature did give him unexpected Cannes cred: something of a wild-card entry in the 2005 Competition, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” surprised by winning both Best Actor for Jones and Best Screenplay for Guillermo Arriaga. The American awards circuit may not have taken Cannes' lead on that one, but it was a successful enough debut – and one that has slowly gained a critical following over the years – to get him a widely predicted invitation back to the Croisette.

The buzz: Quietly confident, it seems – just as Jones the actor is regarded as a trusty workhorse of sorts, his directorial career appears to be shooting for the rugged classicism of a Clint Eastwood. That may not make “The Homesman” the sexiest prospect in Competition, but there's always a space for solid traditional storytelling at Cannes, and the trailer suggests Jones could fill it. 

The odds: Jones may have entered the 2005 Competition as an outsider, but the bookies are a little wiser to him now, with Paddy Power placing him midfield at 16-1. (Jigsaw Lounge agrees.) Even if it goes over with critics, though, the film might be seen as a tad conventional for the Palme d'Or — a jury prize seems a likelier outcome, while a Best Actress win for Swank would send her back on the campaign trail for Oscar #3.  

The date: The film premieres on Sunday, May 18.

Next in Cannes Check, we'll look at the first of two female-directed films in Competition: Naomi Kawase's “Still the Water.”