Tommy Lee Jones made two things clear at a Sunday press conference that followed the first screening of his film “The Homesman” at the Cannes Film Festival:
Yes, as Sasha Stone suggested in her review for TheWrap, it has a subtext about America’s expansionist policies and the historic subjugation of women.
But really, he’d rather let the movie do the talking.
“The Homesman” is an unusual Western, to be sure. Its main character, played by Hilary Swank, is a 31-year-old unmarried woman who teams up with a drifter and ne’er-do-well (Jones) to deliver three women driven mad by harsh conditions on the American frontier to safer environs in the more “civilized” East.
The film includes glimpses of Native Americans as the characters pass through Pawnee territory, while Swank’s strong, capable character is nonetheless driven to find a husband, even when the pickings are slim indeed.
“I won’t try to hide the fact that consideration of American imperialism on the west side of the Mississippi River is an underlying theme,” Jones said of the film at a Cannes press conference. “We thought about that while we were considering it, while we were writing it and while we were shooting it.
“But I’ll let the movie speak for itself on that [subject].”
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As for the depiction of Swank’s character, and of the three women whose tragic lives lead to the mental illnesses that set the story in motion, he acknowledged the theme and moved on even more quickly.
Asked to speak on that aspect of the film, he gave a succinct answer: “I don’t think there’s a woman in this room that has never felt objectified and trivialized because of her gender.”
While Jones has a longstanding reputation as being irascible with reporters, he was downright pleasant at the Cannes press conference, reminding his fellow panelists to “smile for the cameras!” and later interrupting the moderator to express some gratitude.
“Thank you all for asking these questions in English and for being patient enough to listen to the answers in English,” he said. “We know that we are in France, and we appreciate it.”
“The Homesman,” he admitted, is an unconventional Western – and not just because the characters are heading in the wrong direction. “The journey in this movie is the inverse of what you usually see in a movie that has wagons and horses in it,” he said. “And the subject is women, insane women, instead of heroic men.”
But when pressed about how the film ignores typical genre limits, including in the way it mixes broad comic moments with darker, shocking events, he shrugged off the question.
“We just made the best movie we can,” he said. “You were using the word genre, but I don’t understand that word. We were trying to make the best movie. It’s a consideration of history, of the westward expansion, of … manifest destiny.
“But we didn’t think about Westerns or genre or anything other than making a movie about American history from our own point of view.”
And when one reporter wondered if he was worried about criticism for a scene in which the characters fear for their lives when they encounter a band of Pawnees, he dismissed the concerns immediately.
“I don’t have any concern about that whatsoever,” he said. “Those people [the actors[ were all Native Americans.” A grin. “They all claimed to be expert riders, but not one of them could ride one side of a horse. But they did look like Pawnees. That was thoroughly researched.
“I’m not ashamed of the fact that they are considered by our characters to be potentially homicidal. We’re not bending the truth at all, or stereotyping anybody.”