There have been many newspaper columns filled with news of Natalie Portman’s ‘troubled’ project since production was announced in 2013. Acclaimed Scottish Director Lynne Ramsey, who was hot off the heels of her success on We Need To Talk About Kevin and sometime actor and full-time cad Jude Law, attached themselves to Natalie Portman’s new pet project. So far, so good. There was even talk of Michael Fassbender being landed for the male lead. The whole project was coming together nicely, until it was announced that Director Ramsey had departed the project over creative differences. Mr. Law departed soon after and Michael Fassbender moved on to other projects.
Producer and star Natalie Portman had to act fast to draft in suitable replacements. Gavin O’Connor who had impressed as director on Warrior and the underrated Kurt Russell ice hockey picture Miracle, was parachuted in along with his leading man from Warrior, Joel Edgerton.
The story is set in New Mexico territory in 1871. Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman), ekes out a typical frontier existence with her daughter, until her husband returns home one dusty day, riddled with bullets and barely alive. Her outlaw husband John Hammond (Noah Emmerich), had been involved in a fracas with the Bishop Boys gang. The leader of the gang, John Bishop (Ewan McGregor, not the Liverpudlian comedian), is intent on settling a score with Jane. She is forced to seek help from her old flame Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), who is reluctant to assist her.
The storyline segues back and forth in time from 1871, to 1864, to reveal Jane’s backstory. The cinematography is impressive in evoking the brown arid nature of the scorched landscape. The music by Lisa Gerrard, thrums along nicely too. Yet, I found the whole thing rather dull. The pace is glacial and there is not enough tension to keep one engrossed in proceedings. Joel Edgerton spends half the film mumbling and swigging on a hip flask. Natalie Portman is good, but she never really convinces as a tough frontier woman. Noah Emmerich spends the majority of the film incapacitated and strangely mute, which is a shame because he is always an engaging presence. Ewan McGregor sports a sinister black moustache and is convincing as the eloquent villain. He is used far too sparingly though to be effective and at times hams things up.
It is not until the third act, when the picture lands in home invasion/Straw Dogs territory that the film finds its stride. The last half hour is good value, yet some of the action is stifled by a poor choice of camera angles that fail to make the most of proceedings.
This film has flopped like an obese high-diver on its release in the U.S. last February. On a relatively low budget of $25 million, it will probably struggle to recoup its overall cost.
There is some good chemistry between Portman and Edgerton, who also receives a writing credit, and O’Connor acquaints himself well as the fill-in director, it would have been interesting to see what Lynne Ramsey would have done with the project before she jumped ship. Perhaps it would have been grittier, with more of an edge than this straightforward effort. The filmmakers could also have come up with a better title. Not bad, but not great.