Just because a film is small in scope doesn’t mean it has to feel that way. Take this year’s surprisingly good 10 Cloverfield Lane; though it featured a main cast of only three actors and one primary location, it was elevated by a tense, gripping story and some truly great performances. The cinematic scale of Jane Got a Gun is bigger, in some ways. Its story spans years and follows a few key characters as they endure the many tribulations of American frontier life. Why, then, does it feel so comparatively small?
Jane (Natalie Portman) is a tough woman. She’s had to be. Believing her fiancé has died fighting in the Civil War, she takes up with another man, a former outlaw named Bill Hammond(Noah Emmerich). It’s only too late that she finds out her lover, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), survived the war after all. One day, Bill rides back home filled with bullets, just barely alive. Desperate, Jane hires Frost to help fight John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) and his gang of outlaws, who are set on finishing Bill off.
The making of Jane Got a Gun was a notoriously protracted process, including numerous cast changes and a last-minute switch in directors when Lynne Ramsay dropped out over scheduling and contract disputes. Her replacement, Gavin O’Connor, who helmed 2011’s Warrior, does a serviceable job, but it’s hard not to imagine how much better Jane could be with the sort of artistic boldness that made Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin so twisted and captivating. As it is, Jane Got a Gun is more than content to paddle in the shallow end of the pool. Its plot moves predictably and its characters never really take you by surprise. The film’s scant 90-minute runtime feels much longer, perhaps because we’re all waiting for something exceptional to happen. It never does.
Even the performances fall into the unfortunate gray area of solid-but-unremarkable. Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jane as a hardy, resilient frontier woman is often convincing, but seems to lack a certain grit. The film needs more from her, and after Black Swan, I know she can do better. Joel Edgerton likewise never truly rises to the challenge of portraying Frost as a man in pain, embittered by the loss of his love. The original choice for the role was Michael Fassbender, who is much easier to imagine grounding the character in the white-hot agony of regret. In portraying the villainous John Bishop, Ewan McGregor doesn’t commit to a fleshed-out, naturalistic performance, nor does he resort to scenery-chewing and mustache-twirling; the result is less interesting than either option. Also, the choice to cast a British thespian as a drawling western villain with black hair and a distracting mustache can’t help but bring to mind Kenneth Branagh’s disastrous turn as Dr. Loveless in the equally disastrous Wild Wild West, and that’s not an association that’s pleasant for anyone.
The film’s lack of originality doesn’t stop at the story or the characters; even the sets and locations feel uninspired, as if they could have come from any generic western. There’s nothing on a visual level that sets the movie apart from its competition, or on an auditory level for that matter. Anyone who’s played a modern video game would recognize half of the gun sound effects from Jane Got a Gun as being drawn from the same sound library that everybody else uses. It’s true that being somewhat lazy with these details doesn’t necessarily make a film terrible, but when there’s so little else to be excited about these minor problems are only amplified. The script is occasionally refreshing in its attempts to provide its characters with some philosophical dialogue. However, without much to latch onto dramatically, these thoughtful moments are not as compelling as they should be.
Jane Got a Gun isn’t a badly made film. It’s not badly acted, or directed, or shot, but one gets the unfortunate sense that it might actually be more engaging if it was; there’s a reason the old phrase isn’t “so mediocre it’s good.” Jane’s struggles are reasonably interesting to follow, even if they’re not likely to stick with you for long once the credits have rolled. Of course, “reasonably interesting” isn’t much of an enthusiastic pitch. If the Coen brothers’ True Grit has showed us anything, it’s that a modern, female-driven western can be so much more unique and meaningful. Crippled by its lack of creative daring, Jane Got a Gun is a pale shade of what it might have been.
Final Score: 5/10