At Cannes, Tommy Lee Jones turns the western on its head

CANNES, France Sun May 18, 2014 10:28am EDT

CANNES, France May 18 (Reuters) - Actor and director Tommy Lee Jones turned the Western on its head at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday with "The Homesman", about a perilous journey to escort three women back east after they are driven mad by frontier life.

Jones's film screened the same day that Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford and other cast members from "The Expendables 3" rode in tanks down in the Mediterranean seaside town, adding a little star power to the festival.

Canadian David Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars", looking behind the tinsel of Hollywood, is a second competition film being shown later on the fifth day of the 12-day festival, giving it a heavily North American flavour.

The awards, including the top Palme d'Or prize for best picture at the world's most prestigious film festival, will be given on May 24.

Of the main competition films shown since the festival opened on Wednesday, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Winter Sleep" and British director Mike Leigh's "Mr Turner" are tied with the highest rankings in a compilation of opinions of international critics by Screen International magazine. Both get ratings of 3.6 stars out of a possible 4.

In an early review, The Hollywood Reporter trade publication called Jones's film "an absorbing, melancholy look at the hard lot of women in the Old West". It co-stars Jones and two-time Oscar best-actress winner Hilary Swank.

Based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, "The Homesman" includes the usual gunfights and hostile Indians, though at a press conference Jones rejected the idea that the portrayal of native Americans was a "stereotype".

The people playing the Indians were "all native Americans, they were all of Pueblo descent", Jones said. Even the costumes they wore were thoroughly researched to help them look like the hostile Pawnees they portray in the movie.

"I'm not ashamed of the fact that they were considered by our characters to be potentially homicidal. We were not bending the truth at all or stereotyping anybody," he said.

What is unusual is the stark portrayal of the extreme hardships faced by young women trying to survive, raise families and cope with extreme weather and disease. One of the madwomen had three babies die of diphtheria.

Nebraska, where the movie is set, was "not a really inviting place for a woman of the Victorian era", Jones said.

Asked what it was like acting and directing, Jones said: "As the director I can tell you I did everything I tell myself to do and as an actor I listen very carefully."

Swank plays Mary Bee Cuddy, an unmarried plainswoman whose farm is successful but who cannot find a husband and agrees to lead the wagon trip to take the madwomen east with Jones. She said the role showed how resourceful frontier women had to be.

"We're talking about a time that was extreme in every way," Swank said. "It was a hard, hard time, a hard place to live - the elements, the idea of doing it alone, the idea of wanting a partner to share in it, someone to love, someone to have her back."

Conditions on location in New Mexico during the winter drove home for her how hard life had been, Swank said.

"When it was cold it was freezing, when it was windy you had sand in your nose and your ears and your mouth," she said.

Another competition film show at a late screening on Saturday was "Le Meraviglie" by one of two female directors in the main competitions, the Italian Alice Rohrwacher. It revolves around a bohemian family trying to get by making honey in the Umbrian countryside and the teenage daughter who dreams of being picked for a TV reality show.

(Additional reporting by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Larry King)