Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Written by Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis and Joel Edgerton
Starring Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, and Noah Emmerich
Runtime: 98 minutes
It’s a curious thing when a film is well made and well-acted yet still isn’t very good. Such is the case with Jane Got a Gun. It’s actually kind of a mystery how it got released in the first place, having been on the shelf for two and a half years after completion. Maybe there was a hole in the Weinstein Company’s release schedule. It’s not because distributer Relativity needs cash to get out of bankruptcy because they lost distribution rights when they filed, so maybe it’s just star and producer Natalie Portman’s determination to get it out. After a severely troubled production, losing multiple cast members and the director and cinematographer all reasonably close to the start of shooting and various release date changes (the film was originally supposed to be released in August of 2014, then February 2015, then November 2015 until finally releasing in January 2016), it’s surprising it wasn’t just released to disk and streaming services. But whatever the reason, it’s here now and in theaters, however briefly it stays there.
The story is set in New Mexico territory in 1871 and follows Jane (Natalie Portman) as she deals with a situation her husband Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) stumbled onto involving The Bishop Boys, a gang that has been hunting them for years, though we don’t know why until much later. Ham, as he’s nicknamed, comes home with five bullets in his back, all but one Jane is able to remove. With Ham out of the picture in terms of assisting Jane, she straps on her six-shooters and heads to Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton)’s homestead for help. At this point, we know they were involved some years ago but to what extent remains a mystery until later. He eventually agrees and sets to helping her fortify her homestead for the coming fight, making the whole thing into a frontier version of Sam Peckinah’s Straw Dogs.
There are a lot of things that the film gets right. Director Gavin O’Connor does a serviceable job directing the film. He sets the right tone and pacing for the film, sort of a slow burn so the action pieces stand out instead of a fast pace that makes the action indistinguishable from the rest of the film. He uses the barren landscape to his advantage, making it more than just a setting. He also takes time to acknowledge far superior westerns, notably at the beginning when Ham rides home. In this sequence, he not only references the classic door shot from John Ford’s The Searchers, but a reverse of the climatic shot in George Steven’s Shane. It’s a nice touch, but also pretty bold to reference two of the greatest westerns of all time in the beginning of a film that ends up being largely forgettable at best. What he gets wrong is the way he inserts the flashbacks that are (lazily) used to tell the backstory (more on that later). Of all the things O’Connor is doing to distinguish the film against other westerns and make it stand out stylistically, transitioning to the flashbacks by focusing on the person flashing back and positioning them gazing off wistfully is so abhorrently cliché that it undermines the entire process. The way he shoots them is also too on-the-nose, slightly tinting them gold so as to tell us that these were the fabled ‘good old days’.
Also turning in good work are the three principle leads. Portman gives a stony-yet-sensitive performance as a woman who has been through quite a lot during her short life. She’s determined to protect her family at any cost and she plays it well. Portman has always been a strong actress and usually brings her A game even to pictures that are notable only for her. Edgerton is understated and a little too weepy (without ever crying), playing the jilted lover a little too far to the hilt, but he is still effective and reasonably compelling. McGregor is having the most fun in the entire film, relishing the rare villain role and working his mustache just shy of actually twirling it Snidely Whiplash style. He’s effectively menacing, though without purpose. That is largely the fault of the script.
Co-written and revised from a 2011 Blacklist screenplay (the Blacklist is an odd thing, a list of Hollywood’s favorite scripts that remain unproduced. It’s like saying “This thing is excellent, but it may be too good to actually make”.) by Brian Duffield (the original writer), Anthony Tambakis and co-star Joel Edgerton, the screenplay is where most of the trouble is. The screenplay attempts to avoid routine storytelling by throwing us right into the situation without explaining it, which is a good thing. This kind of structure is designed to engage an audience and force them to wonder how they got to this situation and compels them to keep watching to find out. The problems start when they weave in flashbacks to tell the backstory. These are written so poorly that they don’t mesh with the rest of the film. The tone they set for the picture is hard and unforgiving, like the area and time the characters are in, but the flashbacks are kind of soft and mushy (well, most of them are). Then, they undermine the need for them by having their characters tell their backstories, rehashing the flashbacks, more compellingly than what we’re shown! Added to that, their attempt to string people along and keep them guessing as to the nature and origin of the situation distances us from the characters so that when we finally do learn of their stories and struggles, it’s too late to care about any of the characters. This puts the entire climax at risk because you don’t care who lives and who dies. Then they end the picture in a way that is so upbeat it doesn’t gel with the rest of the film in any capacity.
Jane Got a Gun should have been a vibrant western with a strong female protagonist that could have been magnificent. In some ways, it is that (without being magnificent), but it largely falls flat due to over-explanatory writing and indelicate, ham-fisted direction and the obvious lack of the Arrowsmith song Janie’s Got a Gun, anachronistic as it would have been. It’s a shame when talented people like Portman and Edgerton pour a lot of effort into a picture and on Portman’s part championing this all the way through to its eventual release, only to get a poor shadow of what could have been. The film takes itself so seriously that it’s hard to return the favor and we discover that despite the promise of the picture, Jane Got a Gun was not worth the wait.