But Dan got two guns. Jane, for all her prominence in the film’s title and promotional posters, doesn’t get to do much with her gun. It is her ex-lover, brooding and sweaty Dan Frost, who drives most of the action and provides the dramatic centre.For a western that firmly places its female protagonist front and centre, I was expecting it to subvert some of the stereotypes of the genre. As the television series Westworld shows, women in westerns are usually found in whore houses or they are wholesome battlers who need saving. The title alone led me to believe that Jane might be the one to do the saving.
The story starts with suitable drama. Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) rides up to the homestead he shares with his wife Jane (Natalie Portman) and young daughter and collapses from his horse. He has been shot by the ‘Bishop boys’ and warns that they are in pursuit. Although it seems an odd choice to bring an outlaw gang to your family’s doorstep, we find that perhaps John Bishop (an unrecognisable Ewan McGregor) has a personal reason for wishing Jane ill.
Jane tracks down Dan (Joel Edgerton) and begs for his help. It’s clear there’s a muddled history there as Dan is not keen to help save her. Through a series of confusing flashbacks, we see their younger days and also Jane’s subsequent interaction with Bishop. Unsurprisingly Dan arrives to help out at a crucial moment and the film builds to an expected climax as they fortify the homestead and Jane has a go at shooting a gun.
Overall it’s a fairly serviceable western. There are dots and they are joined. We know who the baddies are and that they will get their comeuppance. The location and cinematography sets the right mood of harsh isolation. Portman is good as usual but it is Edgerton who steals the show, underplaying the role of hero and showing his complexity and moral ambiguity.
Where the film fails, or at least irritates, is its lack of commitment to its premise. Seemingly it is the confrontation with the Bishop boys that forms the dramatic arc of the narrative but they are not convincing as anything more than archetypes. McGregor is almost comical with his theatrical nose, moustache and teeth and Fitchum (Rodrigo Santoro – a transformed Karl from Love Actually) is a two-dimensional thug who is easily dispensed with. The real climax, though, is the eventual confrontation between Jane and Dan as they recount their pasts. It is the strongest scene in the film but is let down by stylistically jarring flashbacks and is cut short to make way for the much less interesting showdown with the baddies.
A bit of research shows that Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin) was set to direct the film but walked out on the first day of filming after clashes with the studio. Several key actors jumped ship and Edgerton, originally set to play Bishop, changed roles. I wonder if a female director might have done a better job of ensuring the film lived up to the promise of its title.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.