"There's been some trouble about the women hereabouts," says John Lithgow's plains preacher in Tommy Lee Jones' "The Homesman."
The hereabouts is a tiny, hardscrabble settlement in the Nebraska Territory, sometime around 1860. On the desolate prairie, a handful of hardened settlers try to eek something out of the dry land. Going West never looked like more a questionable decision.
The directional movement of "The Homesman," however, is east. When three of the town's women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer and Sonja Richter) lose their minds, it's decided that they must be taken to a church in Iowa, across the Missouri River. Each driven mad — one by child-killing diphtheria, another by the constant rape of a cruel husband, all by the acrid isolation — they're the seldom seen victims of the male pioneers usually glorified in Westerns, collateral damage to an ill-conceived Manifest Destiny.
The town's men (Jesse Plemons, William Fitchner, David Dencik) aren't up for the monthlong journey by wagon, so the task falls on the sturdiest resident, Mary Bee Cutty (Hilary Swank). She lives "uncommonly alone," she says, with a twinge of shame, fastidiously running her farmstead. When she proposes to a potential mate, the dimwitted man turns her down, saying he'll go back east for a wife, and besides, she's too plain and too bossy.
But the dutiful, Christian, upholder-of-decency Mary Bee is, as the minister says, "as good a man as any." The carpenter who crafts the jail-like cell, abundantly fitted with chains to hold the women, tells her: "People like to talk about death and taxes, but when it comes to crazy, they stay hushed up."
"The Homesman," surely, is about citizenship. It's a Western parable, told with handsome John Ford classicism, about how we care for our ill, our mad and our dead. Into the Western's traditional sweeping grandeur creep the discordant notes of Marco Beltrami's score.
Mary Bee's companion is certainly no upstanding citizen. She takes on a man set to be hung for squatting on another man's ranch: George Briggs (Jones). At least that's the name he, chuckling at its invention, gives her. Our first encounter with him is as he's smoked out of a cabin, his face cartoonishly black from an explosion, rolling around in his Long Johns.
It's an entrance that doesn't jibe with the rest of the film, but, then again, Jones seems to thrive on an unbalanced, mordant tragicomedy. His good first film, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," set up as a confrontation between a Mexico border patrolman and a rancher bent on burying his friend in Mexico before the patrolman had enough and went off to Disneyland. The movie, freed of its schematic plot, went somewhere else, somewhere deeper.
In "The Homesman," Mary Bee and Briggs travel across the plains, a pious spinster and an ornery rascal towing madness across the dangerous open range.
Jones, a devoted fan of Cormac McCarthy (whom he adapted for the HBO film "The Sunset Limited"), takes after the novelist's pursuit of bleak, merciless poetry down North American pathways. In "The Homesman," adapted from a late novel by the Arizona writer Glendon Swarthout, the melancholic balance isn't always quite right and the momentum wanes when it should be gaining.
Most troublesome is the handling of Mary Bee's fate, a conclusion at odds with Swank's excellent, sturdy performance of her. As in "Melquiades Estrada," ''The Homesman" goes off its rails, with detours both exciting and frustrating.
"The Homesman," a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity." Running time: 120 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP