Sometimes movies are doomed from the start. Sometimes movies end up better than they have any right to be. Sometimes they fall somewhere in the middle. As such, we have Jane Got A Gun.
Those who follow movie production news like lonely housewives follow soap operas may have heard how director Lynne Ramsay quit on Day One of principal photography back in 2013 and left the entire production in limbo. The movie had already been in pre-production for a couple of years, simmering so long that Bradley Cooper and Jude Law had each left the cast, and Ewan McGregor had left and then come back, but to a different role. Natalie Portman’s never-ending desire to work with a female director having been frustrated yet again, her unhappiness didn’t help matters much, either. Somehow, director Gavin O’Connor (before he even started developing The Accountant) was convinced to step in and try to save this mess. The finished product finally saw the light of day this past summer, almost three years after photography wrapped, and while I sure don’t think the movie will be mentioned come Oscar night, it actually ain’t half-bad.
Jane Hammond (Portman) and her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) have scratched out a decent life in the middle of New Mexico territory, or as decent a life as can be had there in 1871. Bill returns home one day severely wounded with several bullets in his back, after having had a run-in with an old family nemesis, the Bishop Boys, led by the notorious John Bishop (McGregor). Bill claims that the gang is going to come, come fast, and come well-armed with the intent of destroying the family once and for all. Jane tends to her husband's wounds, but he's in no condition to mount a defense. As a last-ditch resort for help, Jane approaches her ex-fiance' Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) to come to her and Bill's aid. He reluctantly agrees, finding himself in the middle of a deadly showdown, vowing to protect the woman who once left him for another man.
Like many of the great Westerns before it, story complexity isn't at the forefront of Jane Got a Gun. The movie is built around a simple premise of "bad guys want good guys dead," and while it's hardly groundbreaking, the movie works well with that as a backdrop to a more intimate story of how lives become, and remain, entwined. It moves along at a typical Western-like pace, allowing us to form our moral judgments on these characters, but then we’ll drift to flashbacks that show us we were wrong to presuppose. The moments are probably the best of the film.
What little marketing there was for the movie featured Portman with the titular Gun, striking tough-girl poses and casting her in the light of the modern feminist action hero, but this was all very deceiving. The film finds its footing less in its action and cruder story details that see it evolve to the inevitable showdown, and more in how the characters come together and how they carry the baggage that their past and present relationships bring to the table. Gavin O’Connor keeps the movie from becoming overly-melo-dramatic, however, finding enough narrative strength to carry the limited action as a compliment to the story, not the other way around.
It feels like Jane Got A Gun is trying to be a tragic love story wrapped inside a push-button Western. By “push-button,” I mean it hits all the standard notes in its fairly-predictable story-telling, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a poor film. Portman’s performance doesn’t help matters much (she can’t completely rid herself of that “I’m-better-than-you” Harvard accent, no matter how hard she tries), and I wonder if the movie would’ve been stronger if Ewan McGregor’s bad guy had been explored a little deeper. Perhaps if O'Connor had been given the luxury of scrapping all the preproduction work and starting this story all over from scratch, he may have worked the script over in such a way that it delved into the characters even more. The movie that resulted from the messy situation he was presented doesn’t attempt to reinvent the Western, but it tells a lightly engaging tale of loss and love that will appeal to fans comfortable with the genre’s conventions.