Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones in a scene from...

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones in a scene from "The Homesman." Credit: AP

It's probably some kind of sacrilege to say it, but over his long and esteemed career, Tommy Lee Jones has been giving basically the same performance -- the crusty curmudgeon, woefully burdened with inner decency. He's not alone among movie stars in sticking to a script: Plenty of Hollywood icons have found their groove and stuck with it/in it, wandering out only to win Oscars (Humphrey Bogart in "The African Queen"), realize they'd made a terrible mistake (Harrison Ford in "What Lies Beneath") or both (Mary Tyler Moore in "Ordinary People").

Jones will be winning no Oscars for "The Homesman," which he both directed and helped adapt from the Glendon Swarthout novel. But he may come to realize he made a terrible mistake. The story concerns a very real and disturbing aspect of the Winning of the West: Women driven mad by frontier life and its attendant horrors (think of the demented women in "The Searchers," the only thing John Wayne was afraid of). Jones' growling, morally dubious George Briggs is hired on by the wan and severe Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), to provide protection and practical help while they travel through godforsaken Nebraska of the 1850s. It's a solid, historically genuine premise and, for a while, director Jones offers an interesting tweak on Western motifs and American mythology.

Eventually, however, "The Homesman" becomes the Tommy Lee Jones Show, with Briggs transformed into an Old West avenger/Walter Brennan-ized storyteller and font of authentic frontier gibberish. Another director might have reined Jones in and maintained a tone that was consistent, and a physical presentation that was plausible. At the very least, the film looks good, shot as it was by Rodrigo Prieto ("Argo," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Brokeback Mountain").

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