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Tommy Lee Jones

Death’s Optimist



How much energy can an actor get away with not possessing? In a recent article (The Guardian, 18/01/07) David Thomson suggests Tommy Lee Jones is one of the brightest actors in Hollywood – a Yale graduate who moved into cinema and played less than sympathetic, and who never quite had the face for the conventionally heroic. But we might think also of another of Hollywood’s much lauded brains: the MIT graduate James Woods, also an actor with features marred and scarred by acne that would never allow him to play pretty boys, and often left him playing the villain.

But what we want to explore here is Jones’s slow intelligence – as opposed to Woods’ fast thought – and to see what it gives to some of the films in which he has appeared.  If Woods offers the logically precise examination of an event (The Specialist), and the quick put down (evident in the moment when he tells Alec Baldwin’s character in The Getaway that he has slept with his wife), Jones is more given to the homily or the anecdote. Woods’ characters expect us to play catch me up; Jones’ to allow a thought to sink in. Woods livewire thinking is a product of an over-active mind; Jones’s of an exhausted, lived in body.

Maybe the genre best suited to Jones is the western, or at the very least the modern western, and if Thomson is so keen to point up the good work Jones has been doing recently, it is due to his work in this genre: in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and No Country for Old Men. He is certainly a man of the South, the West and the non-Urban, whether it is the traditional western that took him first into directing (Good Old Boys), the modern Western (The Three Burials…), or the South itself (No Country for Old Men). Yet we haven’t mentioned maybe the key performance he’s given: not his Oscar winning turn in The Fugitive, but his role playing real-life killer Gary Gilmore in The Executioner’s Song. There is something absolutely Jones-like about the character he plays; that whether Jones is on the side of the law (as in The Fugitive, No Country for Old Men), against it (The Executioner’s Song, Stormy Monday or Blown Away), meting out his own sense of fairness (The Three Burials…) or playing obnoxious (Cobb) there is a consistency that seems to go beyond good and evil. It is an air of fatalism that suggests whatever life one leads there is always an empty grave awaiting. In The Executioner’s Song, Gary Gilmore doesn’t fight for his life but actually for his demise: he insists the state puts him to death for the crimes he’s committed. Though Jones might claim “I’ve read Freud and ultimately think: ‘so what’”, few actors capture better a death drive over a life drive than Jones. He always gives the impression of being too tired to live, exhausted by the sheer weight of gravity upon our being, and the misery in our souls. Thus whether it is The Executioner’s Song where he demands to be put to death for murder, or Men in Black where Will Smith suggests it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, and Jones replies “try it”, Jones isn’t one of life’s optimists – one of death’s optimists perhaps.

Hitchcock of course proposed that a great story needed a great villain and where Woods is exactly that – and well capable of a devilish glee – Jones doesn’t really do glee, and whether hero, villain, celebrity or patient lover, Jones can never quite give a film its life force. Peter Matthews in an article in Sight and Sound (July 1997) reckons that “it’s entirely likely that Jones has more flat-out genius than any of these guys” – namely Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken – “but whether out of fear, conservatism or plain laziness, he elects to play by Hollywood’s rules.” But maybe the problem resides in Hollywood rules not actually working for Jones. Neither pretty enough for star roles, nor energetic enough to play exuberant baddies that would make for the great villainy of a great story, Jones needs a tempo that is somehow out of time, and certainly out of fashion.

Is this not what works for him in a film like Space Cowboys – yet another, if you like, western? Here he plays a relic from the aeronautical past who’s brought back by his old colleague and foe Clint Eastwood to repair a systems failure on an ageing Russian satellite. Eastwood, Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner are the only men who know the outdated technology. What is interesting here is not least the fact that Jones is acting alongside actors all much older than he happens to be. Jones was born in 1946 (in Texas), Eastwood 1930, Sutherland in 1934 and James Garner in 1928. Jones has often played older than his years – in Cobb for example, and in Men in Black, where his character seems to be around sixty though Jones was fifty at the time of playing the role. Thus in Space Cowboys there is a twofold archaism: a relatively young Jones playing someone well past pension age, and a character who is shown to be out of his time. With aeronautics now computer controlled, the master pilot Jones yearns for the days when half the joy lay in landing a craft oneself. This isn’t so much slow thought but it is a variation on it – archaic thought. Jones more than many a Hollywood actor gives the impression of being in another era, as if he would be happier with a mechanical age over a computer age, and it somehow fits his image that he owns a large ranch in Texas.  He indicates a man constantly looking for retreat.

This feeling comes through in a film in which he’s so obviously miscast that the movie is interesting almost despite itself. Volcano was one of many late nineties disaster movies where CGI advancements met with millennial anxiety – Deep Impact, Armageddon, Independence Day. Jones offers a twofold miscasting in such a film. Firstly he has a wonderful face that nevertheless seems to be responding to a tragedy not unfolding but that has long since unfolded. We might again think of that scene in Men in Black where Jones tells Smith to try losing one’s love. In Volcano Jones has again lost his wife, though this time simply due to estrangement, and he’s left looking after his thirteen year-old daughter who is in need of all the emotional support she can get. But Jones’s face offers the sort of loss that has been sitting inside him for many years: he doesn’t seem recently estranged but looks long-term distraught. This leads into the second element of miscasting. Jones’s face isn’t the visage to deal with the immediately catastrophic – the worst looks like it has already happened. There are certain actors who suit the action genre: their face is mobile to the situation, not so lined and flawed that the present predicament seems irrelevant to past events. Anyone from Bruce Willis to Will Smith, from Schwarzenegger to Stallone, have faces that despite their varying ages look as if everything can go into the situation they are confronting. A face like Jones’ isn’t at all inexpressive; it is that its expressivity goes much deeper than the situation so that, like Bill Murray’s, if in a very different way, it can lend a situation an ironic detachment but not much more. Director Mick Jackson casts Jones though as a character conventionally responding to the events, instead of ironically removed from them, and we might watch the film wondering what greater tragedy sits inside him. The diegesis of the film and the non-diegetic casting counter each other.

A film essentially no better like Double Jeopardy at least works well with within the context of Jones persona. As he plays a parole officer from whom Ashley Judd escapes, he plays the role with wise self-realization. Chasing her across the country while she determines to find her son and her husband who faked his own death so that she could take the rap and he could garner the life insurance claim, Jones suspects she is innocent. It isn’t only that she will stop at nothing to find her son that interests him; it is also as though Jones is reflecting back on his own missing wife and child: he is a former law professor whose drinking caused an accident and his wife and son took off after the settlement. As we see that face with so much sadness sitting in it, Jones’s visage more than the back story gives justification for his behaviour. At a certain point he is no longer the parole officer determined to get his woman; more the mournful ex who desires to get something right in his life – even it means someone else getting back in touch with their child rather than Jones in touch with his.

When Peter Matthews says that Jones has played the Hollywood game we might agree from the point of view of roles like Volcano, but we need also to add that it is a game he plays while at the same time being unable to play it. Jones simply doesn’t have the face for most Hollywood films, and Hollywood doesn’t generally give actors roles where the past sits deeply within them. Even one of the great actors of frustration of the seventies – Gene Hackman – possessed a face that could still react more strongly to the frustration of the moment than suggest being wracked by the pain of the past. Whether it was in The French Connection or Night Moves, Hackman had a countenance that could be in the moment, no matter the sense of accumulated anxiety and futility in his life. Jones’ face proposes that there is no present crisis to match the events that have already taken place, and so there is really a choice: does the director use him for his ironic indifference to the moment, as Murray so often has been utilised, does he create a narrative line that can explore more past pain that makes sense of the misery, or allow him to play grizzled and unwashed, but with wisdom intact?

In the two films he has directed and starred in, The Good Old Boys and The Three Burials…Jones has opted for the latter, as if a harsh life in harsh sunlight has contributed to the leatheriness of the face. In the former there is little to suggest Jones is an unhappy man, and with his light beard, and the camera never quite getting too close to his sad eyes, Jones comes across as a hell-raiser closer to a Peckinpah figure than a man unable to live in the present due to the consequences of his past. The film offers the air of a man who’s avoided the consequences of anything. In one scene Jones’ character  directs a dog to urinate on the leg of a bank worker who’s been mouthing off about business and patriotism, and while everyone else falls about laughing, and the man’s unaware of how exactly the dog came to choose his leg, Jones’s sister lecture Jones about his refusal to think through the consequences of his action. What if the bank assistant found out he was responsible: wouldn’t the family have their loan withdrawn? Jones is the prodigal figure who has come back into the family fold after a couple of years wandering. Everybody else in the family has buckled down to hard work and staying in one place, but can Jones? Jones has no interest in accumulation, however, except of good experiences. As his lover and almost bride Sissy Spacek says at the end of the film, “if wealth was measured in friendship you would be would be the richest man alive”. Earlier in the film Jones says to someone who talks up the benefit of wealth: “all money does for you is make you want more money.” At another moment in the film his much more conservative, property-oriented sister who thinks he should settle down and get married, says to him, “how long can a man stay blind?” By the end of the film though it is shown that Jones is the character with vision and perspective as he saves the family farm from the bank before drifting off into the sunset with the warm words of Spacek in his head. He gets to stay wise to the frivolity of most people’s existence.

Yet Jones hardly plays here the conventionally articulate man of wisdom. His thick Texan accent can barely be heard, and the homilies he spins come out of lived experience rather than bookishness, no matter his own reputed liking for reading. As he once said of himself in a rare moment of confessional introspection and self definition. “I’m in the cattle business. I raise Brangus cattle, I’m a Polo player, I’m an actor, a family man and I’m a bit of an intellectual. ‘Intellectual’ is a pretentious term – just as easily call me a bookworm…”(Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion) In Jones’s work, unlike in Woods’, the intellect usually feels sublimated, turned into the wisdom of lived experience over the cleverness of intellectual competition. Certainly there are spats with others in Jones’s films, but they often take the form of laddish absurdity rather than acerbic competitiveness. In Space Cowboys, it is clear Eastwood and Jones have a love/hate relationship that is more hate than love, but when Jones scores a point off Eastwood it is less about a way with words than a moment of lived experience meaningfully offered. After there has been some tension between the two of them, after Eastwood tries to persuade him to come back on board for another space mission many years after they had screwed up their first chance (fighting on the tarmac after an emergency parachute exit from their plane), Eastwood asks how Jones’ wife is and Jones replies that she passed away. What Jones does here is contextualize the rivalry within something bigger – namely the simple yet monumental issue of mortality. When Eastwood frequently spars with the boss of the space missions past and present, we see two characters egoistically fighting it out. In Jones’ spats with Eastwood it seems more an issue of generating perspectives.

Though as we’ve said Jones is easily the youngest of the four leading cast members, and when we see the actors nude from behind Jones obviously has a younger body than the other three, it is Jones who plays the character with terminal cancer. He seems the actor most able to absorb the stoic dimension of the film: the character that can go gently into that quiet night. The film even gives him a wonderful quite literal send-off. It turns out that there are nuclear weapons strapped to the satellite, left there from the Cold War, and Jones’ character gets to drift off into space and float to the moon. He is a dying man actually taking the world’s ills on his shoulders as he disappears into space with the nuclear explosives he will allow to explode many thousands of miles from earth. Jones is a suicide bomber in reverse; willing to risk death to save lives, and ends up victorious, the nuclear bombs presumably exploded, and Jones sitting upright on the moon.

This is the positive side to Jones’ death drive. Sometimes he’s less generously spirited; in Blown Away he plays ex-IRA man whose bomb expertise goes into destroying lives rather than saving them. But it seems whether Jones plays a good guy (as in Space Cowboys, Good Old Boys, Volcano, The Three Burials…) or bad (The Executioner’s Song, Blown Away, Cobb) isn’t what matters, or rather obviously isn’t what defines him. What counts is, in Matthews’s words, the “spare Hemingwayesque acting style”, the acting that never quite expresses itself enough to play the goodness in a good character or the badness in a bad one. Whether he is playing a private eye with an empty fridge in The Dead Can’t Lie, a military man with a demanding wife in Blue Sky, or the rancher determined to find out what happened to his Mexican friend in The Three Burials…, It would be a stretch to say that Jones has great range. It would be closer to say that his range is minimal; his expression so uncommitted to extravagant feeling that he can play characters that are good or bad, in comedies, action films, science fiction and westerns, and it is almost the genre around him that will express the character.

Simply by casting Jones in Men in Black the film offers an ironic dimension: where Will Smith is an actor who can gee whiz at the enormity of an event, Jones is an actor who metonymically minimises the problem. Thus there are some actors who expand the significance of a situation; others who contract it. If Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Steve Buscemi and Nicolas Cage are in varying ways capable of expanding an event’s magnitude, Jones, like Eastwood, like Steve McQueen, is an actor who shrinks it.  Perhaps it is partly physiognomic – whether the eyes sit deeply or figure prominently – but it is obviously much more than that. It is how the entire body responds to the present; how much of the body seems to reside elsewhere in any given situation.

A term that would most obviously come to mind is the idea of long-suffering. To suffer long suggests the weight within the body as opposed to the lightness of the moment. So when Will Smith says it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, it makes sense that Jones would snarl, but not that he should say ‘try it’. Smith’s persona indicates someone who could love and lose and promptly love again: he could throw himself into a situation with the enthusiasm offered in a previous one. Jones on the other hand gives the impression of someone for whom life is always an accumulative process, an accumulation of hard experience over a life of discrete encounters. He is not an actor who loses himself in the moment, and the Hemingwayesque spareness resides in this inability to exist in the present when the past sits so frustratingly inside him simultaneously.  A viewer might find themselves, consequently, not quite as inside a film as they might have if Jones hadn’t been their chief point of identification. What tragedy has befallen Jones’s characters, we may wonder, that seems to leave his face relatively immobile in the presence of such a forceful adversary as nature at its most destructive, as in Volcano?

We suggested that Jones is an actor of great intelligence, but we’ve also proposed it is a slow intellect, and where Woods seems to have a mind quick to the event, Jones’ is much more likely to absorb it. Even in Volcano when he thinks on his feet and comes up with a way of cutting off the flow of lava, it turns out to be an old-fashioned solution to what others perceive as a monumental and new problem. While Anne Heche’s geologist tries to work with scientific know how; Jones works with the immediacy of concrete matter: he gets everybody to gather up huge slabs of concrete, former safety barriers, to form a cul de sac into which the lava will flow. Ditto in Space Cowboys; most of Jones’ intelligence goes into the know how of landing a plane or a shuttle. He is dismissive of new-fangled notions that it can all be done by computer.

This is an intelligence undeniably based on experience rather than abstraction, and one of the interesting things about Jones in No Country for Old Men is that his homilies come in a mumbled form that suggest he is reiterating things to himself rather than talking to someone else. While, again, Woods tends to offer succinct, sharp consonants; Jones is given to drawling vowels. An actor is of course the sum of his parts, but so often the past is also the sum of the actor. If Jones’s performance has been so well received in No Country for Old Men it rests in a certain type of intelligence, expressed through a strong sense of past, and within that past more than a hint of misery. But it is to In The Valley of Elah that we should finally turn to see the sort of performance that seems like a career summation. Here he plays a former member of the military police, whose war record goes back almost forty years – we hear he was in Vietnam in 1967. Now he’s a retired father, Hank Deerfield, who lost one military son a decade before, and at the beginning of the film his only other child (who fought in Iraq) has gone missing shortly before he was due to return to barracks in the US. The film contains many Jones aspects we’ve mentioned above. He is the man dealing with a problem in the present though with a crisis or tragedy in the past, as we find in Double Jeopardy, Space Cowboys and Men in Black, and he is also the man of acute but hardly quick intelligence. For example in moments were he would seem to be thinking on his feet we sense his astuteness again resides in experience rather than speed of thought. After his son’s body has been found, Jones returns to the crime scene with Charlize Theron’s eager young detective Sanders. As he explains that a green car was probably blue – it was seen under a yellow light that made it look green, as he explains the body’s been clearly dragged from one place to another, these are the observations less of a brilliant mind than one who’s seen many, many deaths, and perhaps cover-ups. Later, when Sanders and others in her department try to arrest a suspect, Jones looks on, realizing as the suspect escapes over the rooftop that Sander and co. won’t catch him. They’ve taken the wrong route, and so Jones slowly takes the most suitable itinerary and blocks the escapee off. Again he is obviously thinking on the spot, but this is a spot he’s no doubt been in many times before.

What is interesting is Jones is very much the patriot here, and while we have already proposed he can play good or bad he can equally play left or right, or rather dissolve the terms. Early in the film Jones explains to an immigrant from El Salvador how the American flag should be put up, and later, after Sanders initially shows indifference to Hanks’s concern for his missing son, says that his son deserves better than that after trying to bring democracy to the shit-hole that is Iraq. Later in the film as he watches mobile phone footage of his son and his troop running over a young boy in Iraq, and hearing how his son got the nickname Doc after putting his finger into the war wounds of Iraqi prisoners, Jones might require a political re-think. However when Philip Kemp in Sight and Sound invokes Costa-Gavras’s film Missing to suggest that Jack Lemmon’s conservative businessman’s realization that the US is as capable of corrupt dealings as any nation, resembles Jones’ here, Hank looks like a man who has seen it all before. Whatever he sees on the mobile phone can’t especially come as a surprise to a man who was in Vietnam, but the surprise may come in that it is still happening, and his son is party to it. In this sense, though the film is in many ways obvious and plot-device ridden, it allows for a more textured performance from Jones than Missing allowed Lemmon.

If we insist it is one of Jones’s most interesting performances it resides in the way the past and the present can commingle, so that Jones’s worn face looking at the computer, and looking at images of man’s inhumanity to man, isn’t the face of an innocent man looking on, but a former military man who can’t quite avoid the feeling of implication. Whether this is on the level of military acceptance or familial responsibility we cannot say, though after Hank tells his wife that she’s lost her only other son she wonders if they both had to join the army; and also wonders how difficult it would have been for a son from such a household to feel like a man if he didn’t join up.

Jones is an actor who can subsume the political into a more general sense of injustice, an injustice that makes the character as implicated as the political system. At the end of the film he tells the Salvadoran immigrant that the flag should be flown upside down and left like that. This, we’ve been told earlier, is a signal of emergency and crisis. But with no reference to Bush’s presidency, and with Hank apparently clearly supporting the war in Iraq before his son’s death, is it a political statement or the reflection of one man’s extremely troubled soul? He is an actor who may have been playing the Hollywood game; but hardly embodies in any sense, the American dream; which may we be why, finally, he was never going to play that game very well. His work is all the more interesting for the failure.


©Tony McKibbin