The title of this western seems to promise proto-feminist lady-gunslinger action. What it actually delivers would be better described as "Jane gets a guy with guns to protect her" — not necessarily a bad story, but a far more familiar one. And "familiar" is the best word for director Gavin O'Connor's serviceable but not stunning retread of genre tropes, set in post-Civil War New Mexico.
Natalie Portman plays the title character, a loving mother to a small daughter and wife of grizzled outlaw Bill "Ham" Hammond (Noah Emmerich). The couple has been living in hiding from a notorious gang called the Bishop Boys, for reasons that flashbacks will gradually reveal.
When Ham encounters these miscreants and comes home severely wounded, Jane is less devastated than grimly resigned. She digs the bullets from her husband's flesh, sticks her kid in the 19th-century equivalent of daycare, dons her gunslinger clothes and goes forth to seek allies. Her first stop is her ex-lover, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), a taciturn tough guy who's been drinking his life away in the desert since he and Jane parted ways. The particulars of their past relationship emerge, once again, from flashbacks, which alternate with present-day scenes of Jane and Dan preparing for a showdown that could kill them both.
The film's time-hopping structure bleeds the present-day scenes of immediacy. In return, it seems to promise more twists and deeper characterization than we'd normally expect from such a story, but the script fails to deliver. By the time Jane intones, "I've been running my whole life," it's clear that her harrowing past is simply a tiresome compendium of frontier-movie clichés.
Did it have to be this bland? The long and troubled production history of Jane started with the departure of original director Lynne Ramsay, known for challenging films that use striking visuals to convey the raw feelings of their female protagonists. It's difficult — and a bit scary — to imagine what the creator of We Need to Talk About Kevin and Morvern Callar might have done with this story. But it certainly wouldn't have been this predictable.
O'Connor, who made the stirring sports melodrama Warrior, makes Portman and Edgerton look good in iconic western compositions, but a few too many of his golden-toned flashbacks could have been lifted straight from a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. (Jane and Dan's love story is just about that interesting, too.) While the performances are fine, no one makes a strong impact — not even Ewan McGregor, who clearly enjoys playing against type as a villain one beat away from literally twirling his thick black moustache.
There are many great stories to be told about how women survived (or didn't) in the Old West. Just last year, The Homesman, in which Hilary Swank portrayed a battered survivor less idealized than Jane, suggested that we've only scratched the surface of that material. And it's clear why Portman, who produced, was attracted to the role. Jane has her occasional badass moments, and her nuances. She even gets to have feelings for two different men without becoming the object of desire in a cheesy love triangle.
And yet, with her noble suffering, Jane remains closer to a Lifetime movie heroine than to a scrappy, indelible western character like Calamity Jane on "Deadwood." If only someone had fanned the flames of originality in this script, or kept the ending from settling into sentimentality. With four credited writers, Jane lacks a strong vision, doing justice to neither the camp potential of its title nor the sophistication of its structure. She's got a gun, all right, but it's shooting blanks.