The Western was once the most popular American film genre, in part because it was one of the few that could be called exclusively American. We invented it and other countries, notably Italy, could only copy it. The Western is now more or less dead — today you can blame “The Lone Ranger” — but it still thrives in the art house world. The oddball “Slow West” is now in theaters, and last year saw Tommy Lee Jones’ equally eccentric riff on the genre, “The Homesman.” Hilary Swank plays a frontier spinster (in her early 30s) who agrees to herd three insane women to civilization when no man will do it. She’s eventually joined by Jones’ rascally scalawag, who has to learn to get his stuff together as they battle the elements, and sometimes people.
Like “Slow West,” it’s both anti-Western and a regular Western, complete with a female lead. And like that film, it’s cool with getting weird. Jones’ grouchy sense of humor helps break the grimness, and even Swank isn’t above turning her character’s self-seriousness into a kind of joke. There’s even a shocking third act shift we won’t give away, plus a diversionary set piece late in that makes fine use of James Spader at his most pompous. It’s a shame these things aren’t popular anymore, though it’s impossible imagining a studio let fly something so personable.