THE HOMESMAN “Mm-hmm.” “Ah-yup.”

TOMMY LEE JONES is one sneaky motherfucker. With hardly anybody noticing, and with only two theatrically released films, he's become one of the best directors working today—and arguably the best when it comes to westerns. As an actor, Jones has been in some of the greatest films in the genre, from Lonesome Dove to No Country for Old Men, but few expected him to start directing great westerns, too: First there was 2005's fantastic The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which slipped under most people's radars and which most people should watch as soon as humanly possible, and now there's the similarly outstanding The Homesman, based on Glendon Swarthout's 1988 novel.

Like Three Burials, The Homesman smooths over its pitch-black cynicism with a surprising amount of pitch-black humor—but there's no mistaking the film's central truth that life is hard and unfair and some of us aren't able to handle it. One person who's doing fine, though, is Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a spinster in the Nebraska Territory; independent and clever, Cuddy's also tough—so tough that when three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) go crazy from the hardships of pioneer life, Cuddy volunteers to take them on the long journey to the more civilized haven of Iowa. Along the way—as he's hanging from a tree, a rope around his neck, about two seconds from dying—she finds the cantankerous Briggs (Jones), who grudgingly agrees to help.

Even if all The Homesman had going for it was Rodrigo Prieto's striking cinematography and a slew of fine performances (Swank and Jones are phenomenal, while actors like John Lithgow, William Fichtner, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, and the kid who played Landry on Friday Night Lights drift around the background), it'd be worth seeing. But there's more: A sense of weary, familiar melancholy soaks each gorgeous frame, while a hard-skinned, stoic determination fuels Cuddy, Briggs, and the film itself. See it, and hope that Jones is already working on another western. He's only directed two so far, and the world's a better place for them.