By Michael S. Goldberger
A few decades ago, before the revisionist Western (i.e.-Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”-1971) moseyed into our movie palaces, director Gavin O’Connor’s ultra-realistic “Jane Got a Gun” might have fascinated us and even won a few awards. But I tell you pardner, by this juncture I’ve just about had a belly full of poor cowpokes and sodbusters trying to scratch out a living in unhospitable country populated by no-account varmints, gunslingers and the precursors of what would evolve into American big business.
Alas, this latest example trenchantly reminds that there’s no going back to the idealistic cowboy yarn. Nope, life is tough, and it’s dog eat dog whether back East in the tuberculosis-riddled cities or out here amidst the beautiful but desolate plains and majestically challenging mountains. Instead of clear-cut delineations between the good guys in their white hats and the bad guys in black, the nouveau-naturalistic shoot-‘em-up takes the occasion to make like a countrified Descartes and mull the variations of good and evil.
All the same, we’ve little problem discerning who to root for in this particular landscape. Hip to the wiles and extenuating circumstances of human behavior, it doesn’t much bother us that Jane Hammond, impressively portrayed by Natalie Portman, is married to Noah Emmerich’s Bill Hammond, a known outlaw. It’s all relative. You see, the blackguards who shot him up are twice as bad, evidenced by the larger sums offered on their wanted dead-or-alive posters. Thus, when old Bill barely makes it back to the homestead, we’re much obliged to feel sorry for the gal.
For one, she’s mighty purdy-like, and secondly, when she’s not licking ten times her weight in wildcats and desperadoes, she’s a right doting momma. However, it isn’t until director O’Connor begins inserting his too often patchy flashbacks that we get confirmation of what we probably suspected on first blush. It all has to do with her life back in Missouri, before she traveled west to New Mexico Territory by wagon train under the protection of the enterprisingly corrupt Colin McCann, leader of the notorious Bishop Boys. Ooh, no gray area here. They’re ornery hombres.
In any case, for reasons that will be explained in piecemeal snippets, they’re now coming to finish off Bill, and Jane is determined to prevent that. But she’ll need help, which leaves her no recourse but to illustrate the desperate veracity of everything being fair in love and war. You see, Dan Frost, a Civil War veteran played by Joel Edgerton, is mighty handy with a six-gun, and it just so happens that he and our title heroine share a past, also to be elucidated via retrospection. Never mind that he’s contrary-like and a full-fledged drunkard when Jane comes a-beseeching.
Problem is, the slowly knit, horse opera-meets-soap opera plot evinces nothing so novel or astonishing to warrant the slow as molasses pace by which these divulgences are made. Furthermore, while we can understand the director’s determination to show us how dark and dismal the interiors of yesteryear were, we frankly just wish Thomas Edison would hurry up and invent the incandescent bulb. But that’s about eight years in the future and, pun shamelessly intended, O’Connor is light years away from providing an aura conducive to good storytelling.
Hence, whether for aesthetic, metaphorical or historical purposes, we’re left to stumble about in the gauzy half-dark, our frustration inevitably compounded by muffled, dialect-compromised discourse. We pray for illumination, only to be reminded ad nauseam that life before the grid, penicillin, the automobile and a sanitary system was a dirty affair, the only consolation being a life expectancy of about 40. Still, that leaves just enough time to mull the numerous ethical questions attending Jane’s travail as an independent woman and mommy in the Old West.
Unhampered by a script steeped to a fault in mood and atmosphere, Miss Portman, backed by good supporting performances, smartly demonstrates that she can indeed act her way out of a burlap bag. She is in one fell swoop the story’s Antigone, Jean d’Arc and Annie Oakley, proving that, indeed, anything you can do, she can do better. Yet, certainly unhindered by her sculptured, porcelain visage, albeit square-jawed when necessary, she nonetheless emanates an appealing, feminine vulnerability.
The actress valiantly manages all this within the context of the saga, judiciously opting to demur on the side of thespic discretion when the mostly drab and ostensibly derivative doings practically beg to be upstaged. Anyway, it would have been to no avail, as the stagecoach carrying any hope for this movie to do or say anything original giddyapped out of Dodge long before “Jane Got a Gun.”
“Jane Got a Gun,” rated R, is a Lionsgate release directed by Gavin O’Connor and stars Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton and Noah Emmerich. Running time: 97 minutes