There's surely a great feminist Western hiding somewhere in the concept of Jane Got a Gun, and I have to assume that producer-star Natalie Portman has been nurturing the project for so long, through so many production woes, in the hopes of finding it. It absolutely didn't happen. This is not the story of how Jane Hammond (Portman) finds the internal fortitude to defend herself against the depravities, sexual and otherwise, of men in the cruel Old West; it the story of how she hires a man named Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) to do that for her, and allows him in the process to have the more interesting character arc. If that's feminism, then they've made literally dozens or even hundreds of feminist Westerns stretching all the way back to the 1920s.

But the biggest problem with Jane Got a Gun has nothing at all to do with its ideology or conspicuous lack thereof; it's simply not very damn good. It finds a rather cunning way to make a brutishly straightforward scenario seem profoundly muddled, thanks to a screenplay that got nipped and tucked quite a few times across the course of the movie's cursed years in development and pre-production (the credited writers are Brian Duffield and Anthony Tambakis & the same Joel Edgerton, but it would be unsporting to blame them), and which ended up slathering one of the most basic situations that Western lore could produce in a fever swamp of baffling flashbacks, which serve to make a perfectly solid backstory turn into a series of surprise reveals that feel more like the film told us something by accident than a crafty choice. To straighten the film out, while preserving, for Christ knows what reason, its alleged twists, Jane was engaged to Dan many years ago, but while he was away fighting for the Union in the Civil War, she earned the unwanted attention of the Bishop Boys gang, led by the no-good mustachioed villain John Bishop (Ewan McGregor). One of the Boys, Bill "Ham" Hammond (Noah Emmerich) grew uncomfortable with the cruelty his compadres were plotting, and so he ran away with her; with Dan apparently lost to the vicissitudes of war, she and Ham married, and now have a daughter. This is not terribly convoluted stuff, and you could pretty easily communicate all of it in dialogue. In fact, Jane Got a Gun does communicate all of this in dialogue. It also decides that we really need to see it interleaved into the narrative in the form of out-of-order flashbacks, and I can't begin to say why it felt that way.

In the present, Ham has gotten himself shot by the Bishops, who've figured out where he must live, way out in the prairie, so to protect her ailing husband and herself, Jane acquires Dan's help, over his reluctance at the betrayal she meted upon him in the past. And right up until its last couple of scenes, Jane Got a Gun is pretty unmistakably Dan's story, which seems like nobody's intention, but at least the "present-day" narrative arc is clean and direct and gives Edgerton lots to do. Since he is the only person in the cast with any sort of spirit other than gritted-teeth resignation to making this goddamn picture already, it helps matters considerably when he's onscreen. Portman is jangled all up in unmotivated contemporary tics; she has the vocal inflections and facial expressions of an average 21st Century woman, and it's extraordinarily aggravating to watch the film break a little bit every time she moves or breathes. And yet not as aggravating as watching an actor as good as McGregor founder in a role that anybody should be able to play with the proper sneering Snidely Whiplash levels of cackling menace; instead, McGregor contents himself with hitting all of the nasal vowels of a Western Midland accent and wearing a fixed expression of beatific banality. It must be the most lifeless, uninteresting performance of his entire career. I couldn't cope with the thought of there being anything blander hiding in his closet.

Gavin O'Connor, who inherited the project after Lynne Ramsay abandoned it in the splashiest way possible, is absolutely no help to the actors, nor to the story, which he permits to move at a sluggish pace that I think is meant to evoke some kind of Western stoicism, but instead feels like the movie is flopping around the kitchen trying to get a pot of coffee going. It's hard to imagine the film dealing with its plot in anything less than the 98 minutes (that's including credits, mind) that it has been given, but Lordy, those 98 minutes take a fucking glacial age to pass on by. The flashbacks do not help - I know I'm harping on them a little, but I really do not think it's possible to over-stress how utterly the flashbacks wreck everything in the movie: the structure and rhythm (since they are studded in with no real attention to why they belong there rather than here), the character building (all of Jane's best material is buried near the end of the film, which is part of why Portman can't do anything with her, and why Dan emerges as the actual protagonist), the sense of impending doom that is the meat and potatoes of all "we must defend the homestead from the psychopathic gang" Westerns (since we keep losing the thread of the main plot).

I have one nice thing to say about the movie, which is that at least it's breathtakingly beautiful: Mandy Walker's cinematography is over-the-top in all the right ways in turning the New Mexican locations into a sandblasted field of hot yellows and browns. It is a desolate, arid movie; it is a movie in which the sun beats down ceaselessly, with even the nights tinted with a sticky, sweat goldenrod hue. There's nothing remotely subtle about it, in the best possible way: if Westerns are the de facto mythology of the United States, it is perfectly fair to film them such that they appear to exist in an appropriately unreal, larger-than-life setting. To look at the film, you'd say that it gets it exactly right: it is the heaving, foreboding Western of legend, domineering and grandiose in all its gestures and intentions. If absolutely anything else in the whole film was working at that level, we might have ourselves a movie. Instead, it's just limp and muddy and quite devoid of any soul. The movie is just there: not good, not bad, not anything.