Adapted from a novel by Glendon Swarthout (who also wrote the book on which the John Wayne movie “The Shootist” was based), Tommy Lee Jones’s “The Homesman” might be described as “The African Queen” on the range, but with less happy an ending. And if the formula of spinster and coot doesn’t work quite as well as it did for John Huston, Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, it still represents a solid sophomore big-screen directorial credit for the actor (he’s also helmed a couple of TV movies), following “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.”

The story’s set in the mid-nineteenth-century Nebraska territory, a region so desolate and unforgiving that it literally drives people insane. Among its victims are three young wives: Arabella Sours (Grace Grummer), whose three children all died of diphtheria; Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto), whose madness led her to kill her baby; and Gro Svendsen (Sonja Richter), whose husband can’t cope with her bizarre, violent behavior. The local preacher decides that all three have to be sent back to civilization in Iowa, where another Methodist minister has agreed to take them in and give them the treatment they so obviously need.

When no man of the small settlement can be found willing to undertake the task of transporting them, however, it’s spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) who volunteers to do the job. A hard-working woman with a successful farm, she’s desperate to find a mate, but her plainness causes those she considers candidates to decline, though she can cook up a fine meal and even serenade a guest with a song, accompanying herself on a roll-out cloth depicting a keyboard. The refusal of the most recent prospect to accept her proposal appears to be the catalyst for her willingness to take on such a dangerous mission.

In the end, though, she won’t have to do it alone, because she quickly comes upon George Briggs (Jones), a grizzled old ne’er-do-well whom she finds strung up with a noose around his neck sitting on a horse awaiting death—a predicament some vigilantes put him into after expelling him from a shack he’d had the temerity to claim in its owner’s absence. Mary Bee offers to cut him down if he’ll agree to join her expedition, and he reluctantly agrees, especially since she offers him a bit of money to sweeten the deal—although he won’t be paid until they reach Missouri.

So begins the duo’s eventful trip eastward, with the three women locked up in what looks like a prisoner-transport wagon. They’ll have to deal with Indians—an encounter in which Briggs’ experience proves invaluable—and a ruffian (Tim Blake Nelson) who will take whatever he can for anybody. In one near-hallucinatory sequence, the band will even come upon a rooming house that’s been erected in the middle of nowhere by a slick eastern entrepreneur (James Spader) who plans to make a fortune from it. But mostly the film concentrates on the relationship that builds between the rigid but sympathetic woman and the cantankerous but somehow vulnerable man, whose ultimate rejection of her carries a terrible consequence and a burden as well.

Blessed with exquisite cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto that’s enhanced by Marco Beltrami’s evocative score, “The Homesman” proceeds almost solemnly through the forbidding landscape, episodic and yet never turning into mere picaresque. Quietly it touches on truths about the Old West—the cruelly inhospitable character of the land and weather, the frequent brutality toward women, the veneer of civilization that can mask the cruelest human qualities but also offer a glimmer of hope. Jones adopts a pace that allows the visuals to make their proper impression and the undercurrents of the story to ease into the viewer’s consciousness without hectoring—this is a steady, even delicate piece of work that makes its points gently, even if there are spurts of action and harshness scattered throughout it.

And Jones is a generous director: though he has by far the showier role—and doesn’t pass up any opportunity to seize on its possibilities, going so far as to indulge in a Walter Huston-style jig on a couple of occasions—he nonetheless cedes much of the picture to Swank, who cuts a picture of resolve and competence that’s nonetheless tempered with deep sadness over how unkind the world can be. The captive women offer portraits of femininity crushed beneath unfathomable grief, each in her own way, while Meryl Streep is an oasis of kindness as the minister’s wife who welcomes them into her home and Hailee Steinfeld appears toward the close as a young woman who deepens in Briggs the quasi-redemption that Cuddy has begun. And one couldn’t ask for a more sterling trio of immediately recognizable characters than those that Lithgow, Nelson and Spader present with the most modest of means.

“The Homesman” is hardly the sort of rip-roaring frontier saga that John Ford used to make. It’s a ruminative, moody Western whose autumnal tone beautifully captures the myriad demands the land held for those who tried to make a life for themselves on it, and the miseries that often arose from the attempt.