In the woeful blue light of a New Mexican moon, sometime in the year 1871, Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) recounts the trials of the past decade to her former intended, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton). It is, briefly, Jane Got a Gun’s most restrained and captivating moment, her face hard and still while tears well in his eyes, but as befits the film’s tortured journey to the screen, any force it gathers is quickly interrupted. Rather than hold tight to the characters’ grief, director Gavin O’Connor allows it to dissipate, illustrating Jane’s monologue with a series of listless flashbacks—dispatches that contain a much narrower range of emotion than Edgerton’s sensitive face. An intimate tale of unhealed wounds trapped inside an unremarkable western, the film is more derivative than disastrous, full of half measures it hasn’t the nerve to see through.
In this, O’Connor succumbs to the story’s fatal flaw, which is to treat Jane’s looming showdown with the nefarious Bishop boys as the film’s key conflict, and not simply the catalyst for her reckoning with Dan. When her husband, Bill (Noah Emmerich), a former member of the gang, returns home in the opening minutes with three bullets in his back, we know at once that the gunfight’s coming; the problem is that the Bishops, led by the natty, malicious John (Ewan McGregor), are no more than a collection of snarled lips, face tattoos, and rotten teeth. Despite spending an inordinate amount of energy explaining the causes of the rift, the script, from Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis, and Edgerton, fails to transform the outlaws into much more than a device, the reason for Jane and Dan to end their long estrangement. They may as well be a pack of rabid dogs or a swarm of locusts.
The result is a film with a strange hitch in its step, constantly blundering into stylistic choices and narrative clichés that sabotage the sturdy two-hander at its center. Mandy Walker’s cinematography, for instance, contrasts the muted tones of the costumes with bright skies and rust-colored mesas, as if to suggest the limits of frontier optimism—and then slips, during flashbacks to Jane and Dan’s courtship, into the gauzy romance of The Notebook. There’s no shame in the pleasures of the familiar, of course, and Jane Got a Gun offers a few fine twists on the damsel in distress, but the predictable glimpses of saloon women and coffin makers as Jane procures weapons in a town called Lullaby suggest that the film’s interest in the western is at best half-hearted.
Nearly lost in this stubborn refusal to focus is Jane Got a Gun’s subtle, surprising treatment of Jane and Dan’s thwarted affections, buoyed by Edgerton’s sterling performance. Squinting under the brim of his hat, sweat darkening his shirt, he’s the picture of the western hero, and yet his reluctant allegiance to Jane is run through with conflicting emotions. A former Union army sharpshooter and Confederate prisoner of war, Dan can be flinty and terse, but Edgerton finds in him an equal measure of softness, a sentimental streak, that explains his decision to help her defend her home against the Bishop boys more effectively than any flashback. Handsome but not quite seductive, loyal but not to a fault, he seems an emissary from the film that might have been, willing to dispense with the past when the moment demands it, despite the allure of the grudge.
Instead, Jane Got a Gun rushes toward Jane and Dan’s confrontation with the Bishops only to flub it entirely, culminating in a risible anticlimax: Call it Home Alone on the Prairie. With faraway gunfire and a series of kerosene-fueled explosions, the sequence is as flat, and perhaps as cruel, as the Bishops themselves, failing to clear even the low bar established by the film’s shoddy construction. “A man pays for everything he takes,” Dan threatens Bill at one point, and for stealing from its finest instincts to create space for its worst ones, Jane Got a Gun pays dearly.