Since the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Tommy Lee Jones has been one of the most recognizable and reliable personalities punctuating American films. He’s aged into the kind of battle-hardened, nonsense-free veteran that can impose gravity with nothing but a craggy, hang-dog look. In 1994, he won an Academy Award for playing a character who’s signature catch phrase was “I don’t care!”. He’s played politicians, cowboys, lawmen terrestrial and extra, a baseball legend, a terrorist, Loretta Lynn’s husband, and just about everything in between. Simply put, when it comes to acting, it’s no secret Tommy Lee Jones is a precious national treasure.
Since 1995, he’s also quietly become one of America’s most intriguing filmmakers; crafting difficult, searching films that belie an outer simplicity in favor of diving into some of the human experience’s deepest abysses.
The Good Old Boys
1995’s The Good Old Boys is undoubtedly the most lighthearted of Jones’ films, but it gives an inkling of the direction that his following three pictures would follow.
Based on Elmer Kelton’s 1978 novel, The Good Old Boys follows the ambling exploits of Jones’ character Hewey Calloway, an aimless, dimly good-natured ne’er do well cowboy continually at odds with an evolving world. Hewey finds himself always saying the wrong thing or screwing up in ways that seem only to hurt the ones he loves despite harboring only good intentions. His zest for living purely in the moment and eschewing any kind of plan or strategy for navigating the remainder of his life puts him in the crosshairs of land barons, a Sheriff, a rich, vengeful dandy, and his rigidly resentful sister-in-law, played by a pre-Fargo Frances McDormand.
Though it may sound like some kind of western farce, Hewey’s plight is that of a man plunged unwittingly into a quiet war with an unwanted reality. All he wants to do is be left to go about his business unbothered. To work when he needs money, to worry only about feeding himself and his horse, and to be free of the loathsomely disingenuous characters that seem to be in charge of the machinations that constitute everyday life.
More of an incorrigible goof than misanthropic outlaw, Hewey reacts to the highfalutin posturing of his brother-in-law’s seedy landlord by coaxing a dog to piss on his seersucker-clad leg. When an imperious small town Sheriff tells Hewey he can’t walk down a certain street with his horse, he knocks him out, oblivious to the impending legal entanglement that awaits him, fists propelled by pure principle. Holding the simple ideal of individual freedom above all else also sets the stage for the film’s funniest moment, when Hewey and his friend Tarnell—played by Sam Shepard—literally chase down and lasso the automobile of a boorish fop who mocked them at the rodeo. The story comes to a head when Hewey begins seeing a school teacher played by Sissy Spacek. All signs point to him settling down and getting his act together, his wayward urges finally cured by the love of a good woman, but clearly though his feelings are real, that’s an attachment Hewey cannot abide.
Being a made-for-TV movie, The Good Old Boys is very workmanlike in its presentation and sometimes feels stilted and cheap, but it’s easy to imagine TNT wasn’t exactly backing up the Brinks truck to get this one made. But, the cast turns in some admirable performances and the story is affecting in its own strange way. Though it may never ascend to the pantheon of great films, if his experience making The Good Old Boys had any bearing on his next film, it was well worth the trouble.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
2005 would see the release of Jones’ next film, a collaboration with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga mercurially titled The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Arriaga had come to Jones’ attention due to his work writing the stellar Mexican film Amores Perros, released to great acclaim and an Academy Award in 2000. Jones and his friend and producing partner Michael Fitzgerald were taken with Perros and reached out to Arriaga, quickly becoming friends and deciding that the only sensible thing to do was to make a film together. Though it would take a few years—during which Arriaga would write another acclaimed film, 2003’s 21 Grams—the men settled on a tale of disparate characters whose lives would be transformed and set on a collision course by a mistaken act of heinous violence.
The device of seemingly unrelated characters brought close—and often low—by a cataclysmic act is one that has permeated all of Arriaga’s well-known features, but under Jones’ direction, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada would put into sharp focus the existential western quandaries hinted at in The Good Old Boys.
Taking place in the deserts of Texas, near the Mexican border, Three Burials begins with a discovery. Two hunters fire at a small pack of coyotes, only to discover the canids had been feasting on a moldering corpse. This is, of course, the tragically titular character of the film, whose death is the engine for everything that follows.
Melquiades Estrada is an illegal immigrant who comes to Texas looking for work so he can send money home to his family in Mexico. He comes across a ranch overseen by Jones’ character, Pete Perkins, and is put to work. Over a few tastefully subdued flashbacks, we see that Mel and Pete develop a close and dear friendship, brought to bear at Pete’s taciturn devastation upon learning of Melquiades’ death. Pete, largely the archetypically stoic cowboy, finds himself crashing headlong into a local justice system wholly unconcerned with apprehending Mel’s killer. He asks the Sheriff, played by Dwight Yoakam, to return Melquiades to him, so he can take his body to Mexico and return him to a family that would otherwise only receive silence in lieu of a report of their patriarch’s murder. The perpetually overburdened Sheriff, clearly at a crossroads himself, ignores Pete’s request and buries Mel in what amounts to a modern pauper’s grave. While this storyline plays out, and we see Jones at his best, radiating crushing grief and simmering rage with every steely gaze, another integral part of the story begins to take shape.
Mike and Lou Ann Norton, a young couple played by Barry Pepper and January Jones, move to town. They view a manufactured home for sale with resigned indifference and Mike sets about his job as an overzealous U.S. Border Patrol agent. Scenes from a fracturing marriage follow. Lou Ann grows bored, Mike grows overly aggressive at home and at work, it’s pointed out that they were both very popular in high school. One day while on patrol, through a series of tragic misunderstandings, Mike shoots and kills Melquiades.
While the shooting clearly takes a mental toll on our antagonist, he does not admit to his crime, nor try to absolve himself. With the Sheriff hardly interested in pursuing the case, it falls to Pete to put the pieces together and play amateur detective to ascertain who killed his friend. Upon discovering it was Mike, he kidnaps him, makes him dig up Melquiades’ corpse, and puts the whole family on horse and burro-back, setting out for Mexico and something with at least a passing resemblance to closure for the dead man now wrapped in a blanket and draped across the back of a horse.
He handcuffs Mike, takes his boots, and spends the next act of the movie brutalizing him as they ride across the desert. Mike apologizes and cries and screams, but his debt is not paid. Like Hewey Calloway, Pete Perkins is a man at odds with a world he no longer recognizes or understands. Good men are punished, bad men go free, and those tasked with maintaining a balance between the two look on and do nothing.
It’s at this point that Jones and Arriaga begin to wrestle with the big questions. In a world gone so wrong, is there even such a thing as redemption? Does revenge or moral justice serve any purpose beyond dubious personal satisfaction? If the universe is as coldly indifferent as it seems, what end lies in the pursuit of anything outside of one’s personal stake?
As in life, relationships shown as warm and seemingly tender crumble in a matter of instants. Loves are unrequited, innocents are harmed, and all of it absent any grand purpose or design. A terrifying objectivism is put to work. In this world, a person isn’t truly defined by the image they project or a uniform they wear; they’re defined by their actions. And in the moral Thunderdome of life, the world one wants to see can only be hewn by their own hands, even if it means imposing their vision of the world onto others.
To Perkins, there’s no stretch of incarceration that can repay Norton’s debt. He’ll only find satisfaction—and Norton will only learn the severity of his transgression—by crushing him with the gravity of his convictions.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was met with some well-earned accolades and nominations when it came out, but was absent from the gaze of larger award shows and didn’t make waves at the box office. It seems to have been well-received by critics, but also appears to have been somewhat forgotten. It’s a film that a lot of people have been meaning to see.
Despite it’s existential brutality, Three Burials is an immensely rewarding film to watch. Realizing the vast expanses of desert needed a cinematographer adept at imbuing scenes with the requisite awe, Jones hired Chris Menges, best known for shooting The Killing Fields and The Mission. It cannot be understated that this is a beautiful movie, clearly made by a man with a reverence for the strange beauty of the desert. The music was composed by a young Marco Beltrami, then best known for big screen genre fare and television work, with the promise from Jones of near carte blanche for the film’s score and soundtrack.
The main cast is rounded out by a phenomenal performance from Melissa Leo and a heartbreakingly bleak appearance by Levon Helm as a blind man left alone in a small house in the desert, who feeds Perkins and Norton a meal on their journey before begging them to kill him. Tellingly, all this dire human trauma climaxes in an ending sometimes chastised and sometimes praised for its ambiguity; somewhat presaging Joel and Ethan Coen’s Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men in more ways than one.
And if The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada sounds like a McCarthy story, Jones’ next project makes even more sense.
The Sunset Limited
In 2011, Jones took on a singularly daunting task: adapting Cormac McCarthy. Though we’re talking about a world where No Country for Old Men was released to ceaseless fanfare and a full trophy case, McCarthy has long proven a difficult writer to adapt for the screen. Many attempts to bring McCarthy’s work onto film have languished in development hell, dismissed as foolhardy pursuits from the outset, or botched upon release, but The Sunset Limited was different. The Sunset Limited, after all, was a play.
Taking place in one room of a sparsely furnished apartment, The Sunset Limited tells the story of White and Black. White is a college professor: literate, questioning, suicidal. Black is a former convict who’s been born again. After Black saves White from jumping in front of the titular train, he takes him back to his apartment, and the two men engage in a debate on a number of McCarthyan topics: the meaning of suffering, the value of humanity, the purpose of life, the right to death. It’s many of the questions asked in Three Burials writ large and unambiguous. The men go back and forth, White resolute in his desire for death, Black equally convinced of the potential for good in every life. The only conclusions the men reach are within themselves, just as the only true conclusions one can reach when considering these questions must be met within. A true believer in anything isn’t going to be talked out of their convictions.
Emotionally, it’s extraordinarily intense. Jones plays White, Samuel L. Jackson plays Black and each man brings some new items from their arsenal in addition to the qualities that have led them both to become well-regarded performers. Jones plays White with a slightly manic pitch; an exhausted impatience bubbling underneath the stoicism he’s known for. Jackson, who’s yelled about God in films before, brings a remarkable light and vulnerability to this role. It’s maybe the first film in recent memory where one can see Samuel L. Jackson playing a character who’s afraid. Though he holds his own with Jones, Jules Winfield his character is not.
Ultimately, The Sunset Limited aired on HBO to decent reviews, but not a great deal of fanfare. The subject matter clearly only appeals to a very select demographic and even then, virtuosic though it may be, it cannot be said that The Sunset Limited is a fun watch. What it is, though, is two legendary actors using muscles we didn’t know they had and asking questions many other films are too scared, stupid, or unconcerned to build a story around.
The external trappings are suitably spartan. It being a filmed performance of a play, there’s no attempts to hide the fact that the apartment is a set. There’s a bit of music from Beltrami, and some effects to show flashes of a world existing outside the window, but ultimately The Sunset Limited is a simple story about complex things. It’s the story of a man who wants desperately to die, and a man who wants him to want to live, and possesses the lifelike narrative resolution one would imagine belongs to such a story.
While The Sunset Limited may not have been a big commercial score, it succeeded in furthering this line of questioning that began in relative innocence with The Good Old Boys. When everything else is stripped away, when death is all the promise that remains for a person, how do they define themselves? Are they still human? Does a being motivated solely by death have a purpose to serve beyond that release? The mental space occupied by White is rough terrain. Grief and darkness so calcified that their deadly logical terminus is more akin to gravity than any human urge or desire. Easy answers don’t exist for any of those questions and McCarthy, and by extension Jones, are smart enough to know that. Ultimately, though, White, Hewey Calloway, and Pete Perkins all share an imperative common trait: they want to be left alone by a world they no longer recognize or identify with.
Hewey wants to pursue the life of a freewheeling cowboy unencumbered by laws and mores, Pete wants to take the law into his own hands until he’s satisfied the man who killed his friend has paid according to his singular rubric, and White wants to jump in front of a speeding train without anyone stopping him.
At their core, each man is attempting to exercise the only agency they feel they have left in a universe in which their existence appears to be of no consequence.
In his next and so far last film, Jones would explore two more thematic cousins to these characters; and show even further the degrading effects of an evolving world on an unprepared humanity.
Ever the great adaptor, Jones, directing a script written by himself with screenwriters Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver set about bringing Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel to the screen. The Homesman begins with the story of Mary Bee Cuddy, played by Hilary Swank, is a woman in the anomalous position of having traveled to Nebraska in the 1850’s alone to farm. She’s intelligent, strong-willed, and fiercely independent, but frequently rebuked in her efforts to find a husband and start a family. She’s chastised by a suitor for being too bossy and it’s clear that many of the people in her town are intimidated if not puzzled by her.
Cuddy diligently tends to her homestead, contributes to her small community, and is still something of an outcast. Try though she might, none of those considerable efforts can overshadow the taboo of being unmarried at 31, but she is undeterred.
At a meeting of the local congregation, the Minister reports that three young women from the territory have gone mad, and someone will need to pack a wagon and take them weeks east to Ohio for treatment. This mysterious ailment afflicting all three women is shown in stark relief. Scenes of infant death and spousal rape set the tone for a disturbing and deeply anti-pastoral depiction of the midwestern frontier. Men wrought of cowardice and low moral turpitude dot the landscape in The Homesman.
The men in the congregation waste no time trying to slough off the responsibility of ferrying these women they’ve broken to get help, and Cuddy steps in, taking the place of a man who flat-out refuses to draw for the responsibility and undertaking the effort alone. While preparing a newly acquired wagon for the journey, Cuddy spies a man fit to hang, sitting on a horse under a tree, with a noose around his neck. The man, played by Jones, was judged to have jumped the claim of a man who’d gone east to find a wife, and was left to die by his captors—some of the same men who balked at taking the women east. Cuddy takes something resembling pity on the man and strikes a deal with him. If he helps and accompanies her on her journey, she’ll pay him a handsome sum and cut him down. Over supper, he tells Cuddy his name is George Briggs. It’s never made certain that’s his real name, and his backstory is sketchy at best.
The trip turns out to be suitably tumultuous, with Briggs threatening to quit multiple times and Cuddy reminding him it’s now his duty to help save these women. Over the course of the trip, bonds are formed. Cuddy finds herself in over her head at times while still attempting to contain what is still an extremely dangerous journey. Briggs develops a respect for Cuddy and something resembling a rapport with the three women, who’ve been driven so mad by the insanely harsh frontier that they often resort to maddening bouts of screaming and thrashing and have to be restrained inside the wagon.
The cast is largely limited to Swank, Jones, and the three women, played by Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter; but there are some excellent cameos. Tim Blake Nelson plays a frontier scumbag who picks up one of the mute girls when she runs away from camp and has to contend with Jones and a knife. John Lithgow plays the kindly local minister, and Meryl Streep plays the Reverend’s wife at the church in Ohio that’s the women’s last hope. There are cameos by James Spader as an unsympathetic hotelier, and Jesse Plemons and William Fichtner as two of the mad women’s husbands.
Where the rest of the story goes is territory best left unspoiled, as there are some jarring turns not often found in westerns.
The Homesman not only paints an uncharacteristically brutal portrait of frontier life, but it also uses that unforgiving landscape as a vehicle to address some of the same questions raised by Jones’ other films.
In a world where a person’s virtuous level best is proven time and again to not be enough to achieve their goals, is there really lasting value in continuing to try? In a world that can be so cruel, is there truly a “right thing” to do?
Briggs is a complicated character, so it’s never totally clear whether he’s taking part in the journey out of obligation to Cuddy, to the women, or to some vague, unexpressed sense of duty or honor. He starts and ends the film as something of a scoundrel or brigand, so one’s forced to consider whether or not taking the morally correct path has really had an effect on him. Life is difficult, and it can be even moreso when trying to unwaveringly, steadfastly adhere to a code or expectation. It’s hard enough to simply exist.
What all four of these films ultimately have in common are the marks of a man attempting to cull some truth from a universe he’s seen is unthinkably massive. It’s an admirable feat for Jones, his collaborators, and the creators of the source material for three of these four pictures. It’s a difficult task as there’s no real measurement for success. Narratively, if these films could find definitive answers to these questions, they probably would’ve never been asked. It’s the kind of big picture, existential dread that keeps artists creating difficult, probing work.
Contending with the infinite unknown that surrounds all of us isn’t an enviable task, but it’s one that Tommy Lee Jones has quietly managed to make some excellent movies out of.