(director: Tommy Lee Jones; screenwriters: Kieran Fitzgerald/Wesley A. Oliver/based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout; cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto; editor: Roberto Silvi ; music: Marco Beltrami; cast: Tommy Lee Jones (George Briggs), Hilary Swank (Mary Bee Cuddy), Miranda Otto (Theoline Belknap), Grace Gummer (Arabella Sours), Sonja Richter (Gro Svendsen), Hailee Steinfeld (Tabitha Hutchinson), Meryl Streep (Altha Carter), John Lithgow (the Rev. Alfred Dowd), Tim Blake Nelson (Rapist)James Spader (Aloysius Duffy), Evan Jones (Bob Giffen); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Peter Brant/Brian Kennedy/Luc Besson; Roadside Attractions; 2014)

“Too silly to take seriously and too dark to find funny.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Tommy Lee Jones (“The Sunset Limited”/”The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada“/”The Good Old Boys“) stars and directs this somewhat corny and for the most part ineffectively acted old-fashioned western, set in 1854, that has its female lead as an unmarried strong-willed Nebraska farmer, Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). The eligible locals find her too bossy, too stern and too plain for marriage. Writers Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley A. Oliver keep it too silly to take seriously and too dark to find funny. It’s based onGlendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel.

The plot has Mary Bee volunteering to go on an arduous travel mission after a local male refuses to obey the town leader reverend (John Lithgow). Mary Bee signs onto a five-week wagon trip over the rugged plains to deliver three frontier wives who cracked-up, where they will be looked after at a psychiatric facility in Iowa by a kind-hearted Methodist minister’s wife (Meryl Streep). The women are identified as ” Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer), who lost three children to diphtheria, Theoline (Miranda Otto), who killed her baby, and Gro (Sonja Richter), who needs an exorcist.

When the scruffy old codger drifter George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) is hanged by vigilantes for claim jumping a seemingly abandoned property (whose owner-Evan Jones-turned down Mary Bee’s marriage proposal to go east to find a wife), Mary Bee cuts him free in trade for the Army deserter going with her as a helper on her mission.

The adventures include an encounter with hostile Native Americans, ruthless outlaws, a crazed rapist (Tim Blake Nelson), starvation and the other travel hardships.

The pic straddles the line between comedy and drama, as it brings back a rare western. Updating it with fem- empowerment touches and depicting life as bleak for those on the 19th century American prairie, especially the women. Though it follows in the style of a cheeky True Grit-like western in its character depictions between stars, one thing is certain, even though Jones is comfortable in this genre, he’s no John Ford when it comes to directing.

REVIEWED ON 11/25/2014 GRADE: C+