Jane Got a Gun (2015) / Western-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for violence and some language
Running Time: 98 min.

Cast: Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Noah Emmerich, Boyd Holbrook, Rodrigo Santoro
Director: Gavin O'Connor

Screenplay: Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis, Joel Edgerton
Review published January 31, 2016

The troubled production, Jane Got a Gun, finally see the light of theater screens, and I suppose it's to the credit of the filmmakers that they are able to deliver a serviceable, if uneven, Western entry. Between contract squabbles, the original director, Lynne Ramsay, walking away from the project early in the shooting phase of 2013, difficulties nailing down the cast (Michael Fassbender, Jude Law, and Bradley Cooper had once been attached), and challenges with distribution (including a bankruptcy) that forced several release dates to push forward, it's a film that once had looked like it might not get made at all.  But, it all came together in the end, with a new director, replaced cast and cinematographer, and the Weinstein Company distributing it, even if it meant the dead of winter in a limited selection of theaters.

Set primarily in the New Mexico Territory of 1871, the titular Jane (Portman, Thor: The Dark World) is shocked to find her husband, Bill Hammond (Emmerich, Fair Game), riding home after a long time away with bullets in his back.  A deadly gang of former outlaw fur traders called "the Bishop Boys", run by the vicious John Bishop (McGregor, Mortdecai) have been after them for some time for past betrayals, and Bill informs Jane to get prepared, and perhaps get moving.  After dropping off their young daughter with a friend, Jane tries to enlist the services of a former lover named Dan Frost (Edgerton, Black Mass) for protection, but they've been separated and estranged since the Civil War drove Jane to have to fend for herself, not knowing if Dan ever made it back from the conflict alive.  However, Dan has his own reasons to distrust Jane, and to want Bill out of the picture, causing a tension in loyalties when Dan accepts for a fee, but only because he's trying to get his beloved Jane back.

Put together by veteran director Gavin O'Connor (Miracle, Warrior), Jane Got a Gun, does work for good spells of the film, crafting a nice looking Western with lots of interesting gray areas among its characters.  It's not a confident genre piece, often feeling like O'Connor, given the last-minute replacement status, didn't have time to draw upon the inspiration of the great Westerns of yesteryear for the right look and feel, so it occasionally feels a bit ham-fisted through the injection of more modern-day thriller elements that don't completely jibe with the nature of the more subdued and contemplative storyline. The storytelling elements are nicely handled, with flashbacks that continue to paint in the details of the story, allowing us to see the main characters in a different light with each successive piece of the puzzle put into place.  It's a shame that the execution comes off as timid in a constantly revised genre that practically necessitates some kind of visionary bravado.

Though small in frame and slight in stature, Natalie Portman, who shares a producer credit on the pic, manages to give a credible performance as Jane, especially in her conflicted emotional state toward herself, her values, and the men in her life.  It's a mostly subdued characterization, though there is a moment in which Jane is racked with emotional pain that feels incredibly real, reminding us that Portman is an actress one should never underestimate. Ewan McGregor seems a bit out of sorts playing the black-dyed moustache-twirling Bishop, who seems too well manicured and deliberately stylized to mix well with the rough and grungy look of the rest of the ensemble, and it doesn't help that he's a bit ill-defined as a character, despite adequate screen time to understand his motivations.  Joel Edgerton, who contributes to the screenplay, and who was originally intended to lay John Bishop, gives a finely nuanced performance as Dan, who is so racked with feelings of betrayal and jealousy, and a lingering love for Jane, that it's to the actor's credit that he always manages to seem like a wild card, even if he always appears good, because the story upends just what is good and right as we're given more details on the relationships at hand.

Though there is a score that kicks in during the action beats, Jane Got a Gun is an unusually quiet and low-lit Western, which may make those looking for more action and thrills in the aftermath of such potent genre excursions like The Hateful Eight, Bone Tomahawk, and The Revenant.  It's a much less ambitious film than those, delving more in the back story and emotional elements, perhaps more along the lines of Slow West, especially in its climax, so expectations of big excitement should be kept at bay.  It does have a well-executed shootout at the end, though it does stumble as it has the finish line in sight, which makes it a bit of a disappointment that a film that had built up a deliberate and cultivated tempo would try overplay its hand through too-pat resolutions of the violent conflict and an epilogue that feels like it should have been more resonant emotionally than it ends up.  It feels more like a rough draft than a fully realized movie, no doubt due to the myriad of production issues, but at least it's a promising first draft.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo