Tommy Lee Jones (right) in The Homesman

The Homesman is such a deeply pessimistic work that I’ll be surprised if it becomes a popular success. American spectators rarely go for movies about failure (which might explain why the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, despite being one of the best-reviewed movies of last year, never caught on with the mainstream), and The Homesman confronts that subject in virtually every scene. The film opens with a despairing portrait of American frontier life in the 1850s, introducing us to a small farming settlement that’s been ravaged by disease and crop failure. Three women in the town have gone mad after a particularly devastating year (one has lost all three of her children to diphtheria in months), and the townspeople decide that someone should take them to a sanitarium back east. The task falls on a headstrong spinster named Mary Bee Cuddy (Hillary Swank), who then recruits a drunken loner (Tommy Lee Jones) to help after none of the men in town offer assistance.

What follows feels like a classic pioneer story in reverse, as the characters retreat from the frontier and venture back to civilized society. The journey east proves just as difficult as any journey west; the characters face hunger, looters, and potentially hostile Native American tribes. (In one of the most unsettling scenes, Jones tosses Swank a revolver before going to negotiate with a tribe, telling her to commit suicide and kill the other women if he doesn’t return—capture would be a fate worse than death.) The Homesman depicts this stark world in authoritative detail. Glendon Swarthout, who wrote the 1988 novel on which the film is based, reportedly spent eight years researching failed pioneer communities, and the film’s screenwriters (Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald, and Wesley A. Oliver) drew on Swarthout’s wealth of firsthand sources when drafting the script. The settings, typically rough-hewn and bare, convey a sense of desperation regardless of what takes place.

As director, Jones develops an aesthetic to match the bleak environments. Most lines of dialogue are preceded by discomforting silences, and many of the supporting players (among them William Fichtner, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and Meryl Streep) appear for just one or two scenes. Working in gritty 35-millimeter with the gifted cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (25th Hour, Brokeback Mountain), Jones devotes most of the frame to the sky whenever he presents landscapes, making any human activity seem trivial. At times The Homesman suggests a John Ford adaptation of Waiting for Godot—the desolation is so extreme that it practically feels absurd. (The film is not without humor, though it’s humor of a very dark sort.) It also suggests an oblique commentary on the present, communicating a disappointment in the American dream that many people feel in our era of economic disparity and decreased social mobility. As the protagonists near their final destination, The Homesman offers a critique of civilization that’s almost as pessimistic as its critique of frontier life, suggesting that in every corner of America there have always been more losers than winners.