Gather 'round the campfire, children, and I will tell you the tragic tale of Jane Got a Gun.
When the film was first announced in the spring of 2012, it sounded like a promising western. It would be directed by Lynne Ramsay (who was fresh off the success of the superb We Need to Talk About Kevin), and would star Natalie Portman in the title role. Later, it was announced that Michael Fassbender would be playing the male lead, and that Joel Edgerton would be playing the villain. So far, so good.
Then, things got messy. Fassbender had to leave the project due to a scheduling conflict, so Ramsay made Edgerton the male lead and cast Jude Law as the villain. All of the pieces were put in place, the pre-production work was completed and the shoot was scheduled. However, on the very first day of production, something alarming happened: Ramsay didn't show up for work. She had abandoned the film without warning, leaving the whole project in a state of limbo. The producers scrambled to find a solution. Director Gavin O'Connor was brought in as a replacement, but the cast and crew shake-ups continued: Jude Law left the project (stating that he had only signed up for the film because it would have given him the opportunity to work with Ramsay), cinematographer Darius Khondji left (replaced by Mandy Walker) and Edgerton and Anthony Tambakis were tasked with re-working the original screenplay. Bradley Cooper accepted Law's part, but then hastily departed, allowing Ewan McGregor to step in.
Despite the overwhelming amount of behind-the-scenes chaos, there was still reason to believe that Jane Got a Gun might be a worthwhile film. After all, Portman, Edgerton and McGregor are talented folks, and O'Connor had offered a clear demonstration of his talent with Warrior. Surely they could make a decent western? The genre itself does half the work for you: it's hard to hate a movie full of horses, ten-gallon hats and gorgeous landscapes.
Unfortunately, the horses, ten-gallon hats and gorgeous landscapes are just about the only things Jane Got a Gun has going for it. This isn't the sort of spectacular trainwreck that the (widely publicized) behind-the-scenes chaos may have promised, but that might have been preferable to what we actually get: a terminally dull, lifeless, instantly forgettable western featuring alarmingly bland lead performances.
The story initially seems pretty simple. Jane's husband Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich, The Americans) has been wounded by the villainous Bishop Boys (led by the villainous John Bishop, played by McGregor), and Jane fully expects that they'll be coming back to finish him off. So, she rides into town and hires gunslinger Dan Frost (Edgerton) to serve as a security guard of sorts. Ah, but there's a twist: it seems that Dan is Jane's former fiance, and that she also has a complicated past with John Bishop. So, a large chunk of the film's midsection is occupied by long, meandering flashbacks that detail the many complications of Jane's past.
It's a little tricky to pinpoint precisely why the movie doesn't work, because there's nothing that immediately stands out as being particularly terrible or wrong-headed. However, the movie simply never manages to attain any dramatic power, and I suspect that's largely due to the sense of creative exhaustion that seems to be running through the entire flick. This was allegedly a passion project of sorts for Portman (who produced the film), but she never really manages to make Jane come to life despite a handful of well-acted individual moments. McGregor's mustache-twirling performance is an atypically unconvincing turn from the actor, and Edgerton's brooding never captures out our interest. O'Connor brought so much energy to Warrior, but this time he seems to be directing on auto-pilot... this feels like a movie that could have been made by anyone.
In retrospect, it was probably a bad idea to try to replace a distinctive arthouse filmmaker like Ramsay with a more conventionally talented guy like O'Connor. Ramsay's work is more about tone and atmosphere than storytelling (her films are heavy on revealing imagery and light on dialogue), and that's not something you can just recreate. But who knows? Maybe her version would have been dull, too. All we can do is look at what we have. A shame it isn't really worth looking at.
Jane Got a Gun
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 2016