Three years after it first began shooting, the indie Western Jane Got a Gun finally makes its theatrical debut. Originally on the 2011 Blacklist of scripts unlikely to be produced, the film eventually found financing but had a troubled production history. Not only did many actors drop out, but original director Lynne Ramsey (Ratcatcher, We Need to Talk about Kevin) quit the project because she believed its producer-financier was allegedly committing fraudulent behavior by imposing a strict shooting schedule and denying her final cut of the film. Ramsey’s decision to depart ended in a breach-of-contract lawsuit and Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) was brought on to fill in for directing duties.
It’s a miracle the film got made at all. The question is whether the end result is worth a watch. For the most part, yes. Not only is Jane Got a Gun beautifully filmed in 35mm, recalling the look and feel of classic Westerns, it contains strong lead performances by Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton. The film follows Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman) seeking help after her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) returns home, his body bullet-ridden. She turns to her former fiancée Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) to defend them from Colin McCann (Ewan McGregor), leader of the Bishop Boys outlaw gang.
The chemistry between Portman and Edgerton is especially strong. Edgerton’s performance is understated and quiet, bringing buried emotions to the surface. His demeanor is contrasted by Portman, whose character is strong and determined. Although she’s fearful for the lives of her family, she is not a damsel in distress. To relay the tension in their relationship, the camera lingers on their emotive faces as they speak in minimalist, cryptic dialogue.
As they prepare to defend themselves from the Bishop Boys gang, their backstory is told in a series of flashbacks. Although the present events naturally transition into the past through camera dissolves, the script’s narrative structure is rather choppy. The flashbacks fill viewers in on events which occurred over the past seven years (1861-1868), effectively painting the histories of these characters with genuine emotion. However, these sequences feel overly expository and seem to be a product of lazy writing.
Despite the danger facing Jane and her family, it is difficult to connect with any of the characters. Noah Emmerich’s abilities are sadly wasted since all his character mostly does is grunt in pain; his performance mirrors the fate of Jim Bowie who died at the Alamo. In addition, Ewan McGregor feels entirely miscast. Although this role allows McGregor to show greater versatility, in contrast to his well-known performances in Moulin Rouge and the Star Wars prequel trilogy, his portrayal results in a sadly one-dimensional villain who brings the minimum sinister air the occasion requires. Lastly, all periphery characters are unmemorable except for their roles in the plot. However, the actors aren’t entirely to blame since there is only so much they can bring to a poorly written script.
Aside from these setbacks, the film is quite entertaining. Gavin O’Connor builds the atmosphere effectively as Jane and Dan dread the arrival of McCann’s men. The final confrontation plays out like a Straw Dogs siege without the extreme violence and moral ambiguity of Sam Peckinpah’s film. With its breathtaking cinematography of desert vistas, two strong lead performances, and thrilling shootouts, Jane Got a Gun mostly delivers the goods. By joining a growing list of recent Westerns that do not need to rely on nostalgia for the genre’s golden era to attract audiences, it is a testament that the Western is far from dead. In any case, a B-Western such as this is a good diversion and better investment of money than the usual studio fodder that rolls out in theaters this time of year.
Jane Got a Gun
Starring: Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich, Ewan McGregor
Written by: Brian Duffield
Directed by: Gavin O'Connor
Running time: 98 minutes
Sean Woodard has been described by many of his friends and colleagues as having an "encyclopedic knowledge of film." When he's not watching Sergio Leone westerns or listening to Ennio Morricone's film scores, he can be found writing, playing piano (his nickname is "Elton Sean"), or singing in his church choir. Sean has earned Bachelor degrees in Writing and Music from Point Loma Nazarene University and is currently pursuing a Dual M.A. in English/M.F.A in Creative Writing degree from Chapman University. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.