As a writer-director, Tommy Lee Jones has an enduring attraction for the rugged west. He went there in 2006 for his directorial debut, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada;” now he’s back with a western told from a female point of view. This is the story of what loneliness and cruelty did to so many women on the unforgiving open prairies: it made the strong ones desperate and it drove the weak ones mad. We spend more than two hours with just four of those women, but at the end of their journey, we don’t know them much better than we did at the beginning. We watch their suffering; we never fully feel their pain. Even the major act of violence that changes everything lacks a clear rationale. It’s as if Jones, as director, knew the wagon was heading in circles and needed to change the grip on the reins.
His telling of this story is sensitive and sympathetic, but too much is too superficial, too inexplicable, too slow. Scenes go on too long; dialog often sounds contrived, situations seem included to cover a checklist of clichés. The wide-screen cinematography (by Rodrigo Prieto) of five people, a small wagon, and endless skies, is spectacular. The storytelling is not as impressive. We never feel any real suspense from the elements or sense any change in the women. Flashbacks are too often out of place and unnecessary. The scene of full nudity and self-mutilation is excessive and difficult to watch. As the leads, Swank and Jones have a rough sense of chemistry although we never feel we’ve gotten beneath her hard shell or his weathered weariness. And he’s the only character who has been changed for the better by the experience. But the story has a timeless quality. Even today, too many live lives of quiet desperation, waiting for their homesman. It’s admirable that Jones chose to tell their story; it’s unfortunate he never completely found its heart.