Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman) lives in an isolated house with her ex-outlaw husband Bill (Noah Emmerich). He comes home badly injured and riddled with bullets: his old gang, led by John Bishop (Ewan McGregor), is coming to kill him. With the help of a former lover (Joel Edgerton) Jane prepares to defends her husband and property, whatever the cost.
Jane Got a Gun is a 2016 western directed by Gavin O’Connor. Whatever its merits – and I will discuss them in a moment – if the film is ever remembered in the future it will be for its notoriously troubled production rather than its actual quality. It faced studio bankruptcy, a last-minute change of director, cast, cinematographer and screenwriters. The film’s release date shifted back incrementally by so far that when it was released into American cinemas in January 2016 it was almost three years since it had started shooting. Once released it was a disastrous flop, earning back just three million dollars from a US$25 million budget.
To the credit of the last cast and crew standing, you cannot really notice those behind-the-scenes problems. It is a solidly presented and oftentimes very effective western. It combines a straight-forward siege narrative with a rewarding flashback structure; one which illuminates the character relationships and history as it goes. Fans of the western genre are unlikely to be disappointed.
That flashback-heavy narrative structure actually goes a long way to masking what is ultimately a very simple “farm under siege” story. We see characters behave in certain ways but initially do not know why. We see them make unexpected choices and reference unknown events and places too. The flashbacks slowly unveil the backstory, creating a much richer and illuminating story as they go. They also reveal a great tragedy lying at the film’s heart.
Natalie Portman is already widely regarded as one of the best actors of her generation, and she delivers an incredibly strong performance here. The impressive thing about her performance is that it makes Jane real: she is not a seemingly super-human heroine, nor is she a weak damsel in need to rescuing. She sits somewhere in the middle, presenting facets of her character that are both strong and frail, powerful and brittle. She feels very human, and enormously easy with which to empathise. Joel Edgerton slips into the role of ex-fiancee Dan Frost with ease. He is a very traditional sort of cowboy hero – the kind played by Glenn Ford back in earlier decades – and it is impressive just how naturally he takes to that sort of softly-spoken but hard-edged kind of a role. Sadly Ewan McGregor does not seem as convincing, lacking sufficient gravity and grit to fully sell his role as gang leader John Bishop. In his defence he was a last-minute replacement for Jude Law, who quit alongside the original director Lynne Ramsay just before production was scheduled to commence. Perhaps with more preparation he would have made a stronger impact.
The film is visually rather strong, with very typical western imagery regularly punctuated by some rather beautiful and unexpected shots and compositions courtesy of cinematographer Mandy Walker. It also wisely does not outstay its welcome, running to a concise but effective 98 minutes. The film’s extended climax is well developed and dramatic, with a particularly effective and satisfying denouement.
The western may not be Hollywood’s favourite genre any more, but it remains a very strong and robust framework around which contemporary filmmakers can craft new and interesting variations. Jane Got a Gun does an exceptional job of framing the ‘old west’ experience through the eyes of a woman, and benefits enormously from the result.