My dad introduced me to Westerns when I was a young’un… Silverado was always my personal favorite. And then there was good ol’ John Wayne, whom I watched more of when I became a wrangler, working with horses on a local ranch. But as much as I loved these stories, they always lacked a female protagonist. Women were present (i.e. rescued or featured prominently in saloons), but where were the ones with grit and gumption?
Enter Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman, Thor, Black Swan). Jane is the heroine we’ve been waiting for. She didn’t set out to become one, but she responds to life’s circumstances with courage and brains.
When her fiancé doesn’t return from fighting the Confederates after the Civil War ends, Jane heads for New Mexico. After she is trafficked into a brothel by the man leading her wagon train, the villainous John Bishop (Ewan McGregor, Last Days in the Desert, Our Kind of Traitor), she builds a new life for herself with the one man who comes to her aid, Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich, Blood Ties, Warrior). When he’s shot by Bishop’s men and barely makes it back to their home, she does her best to patch him up before taking their daughter to safety and going to the one man she knows who can help her against the oncoming storm: her ex-fiancé, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton, Black Mass, Warrior). Together they prepare to defend her property from Bishop’s men, who are determined to finish what they started.
Jane’s character was different from what I’d expected. I’ve been programmed to expect either a mostly helpless female, or one that is unrealistically tough (with the occasional moment of weakness to make her appear human). I don’t relate to either of those types, so I was a bit apprehensive of what I would find in this film.
I’m happy to say that I was surprised to find a woman who was not only relatable, but thought-provoking. Glimpses into her past prove that she’s more than capable of handling herself, so when she actually needs help, the situation is plausible. She’s not the only one being saved or doing the saving in this film; everyone has their moments, which settled the hairs on the back of my neck that rose the first time Jane was between a rock and a hard place. Also, she’s basically a super-mom; she cooks, cleans, manages the occasional shootout, handles emergency first aid, etc., all with a no-nonsense attitude of efficiency. Not to say she isn’t fazed by the tough stuff. She is, but she deals with it. In that way, she’s basically the sugar and steel that women are made of.
It’s worth mentioning that the film doesn’t cut corners in the genre category, either. I’m not a fan of tropes, but there are just certain things you expect from Westerns: exciting chases on horseback, rickety towns built in the middle of the vast and stunning wilderness, shootouts, a villain that’s more dastardly than decent folk can handle, saloons, leather and dust… I was a bit concerned that the filmmakers would soften these to make the protagonist look stronger, but that wasn’t at all the case. Score!
Jane is a woman who manages to face and overcome every obstacle with grit, guts, and determination. That alone would have made a decent Western. But toss in victory, justice, and a happy ending…that’s a good one, partner.