'Jane Got a Gun': Film Review

A brooding femme-centric Western in which the most exciting action seemed to occur offscreen.
1/29/2016

Natalie Portman's long-delayed and troubled production will finally be released this week.

Rolling into town with a whole lot of baggage in tow, the ill-fated Natalie Portman Western Jane Got a Gun is not quite the calamity that some may have feared. But this slow-burn and rather heavy-handed affair — capably helmed by Gavin O’Connor, who took over after director Lynne Ramsay never showed up for the first day of shooting — does not really bring enough excitement to such a well-tread genre, even if the idea of centering its story around a woman under siege gives the film a certain novelty factor.

With Portman both producing and starring as the titular gunslinger (though she’s not exactly Annie Oakley and only draws her gun a few times), and co-writer Joel Edgerton as a former lover forced to protect the lady who broke his heart, this flashback-filled thriller takes a bunch of familiar Old West archetypes and tries to shuffle them around in an unfamiliar way. The result is an intensely performed if somewhat drab four-hander (or six-shooter) that will have a hard time hitting its theatrical target when The Weinstein Company releases the film stateside on Friday, though its star firepower could give it a boost both overseas and on the small screen.

The film was slated to shoot in March 2013 when Scottish auteur Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ratcatcher) failed to show up on day one of production, throwing Portman’s independently financed picture into turmoil and causing co-star Jude Law to jump ship (he had already replaced Bradley Cooper, who exited earlier). A substitute director was quickly found in O’Connor (Pride and Glory, the superb and underrated Warrior), who brought in Edgerton and Ewan McGregor to respectively play Jane’s ex-fiancé and major foe, with cameras rolling a few months later.

Such a major setback was actually only the first of several obstacles faced by the film, which found its domestic release delayed three times by Relativity Media, until the bankrupted mini-major handed Jane over to co-distributor TWC just before it filed for Chapter 11. The movie was finally scheduled to open last fall in France when both the premiere and release were canceled following the attacks in Paris, with Gallic distributor Mars pushing the rollout back to January to coincide with the one in the U.S.

With so much tantalizing backstory, one wonders what kind of Lost in La Mancha-type exposé may have resulted from all the behind-the-scenes action taking place, and it’s hard not to watch the somber Jane without thinking that this is one of those cases where the making-of could be better — and definitely more fun — than the final product.

Financial disasters and casting issues aside, the film’s most evident loss appears to be the absence of Ramsay, who could have brought her vivid art-house stylings to a screenplay (by Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis and Edgerton) that throws a few boondoggles at the viewer, especially with all its jumps in time, yet heads pretty much where you would expect it to and often does so in a drudging way that lacks some needed visual poetry.

What does come across as most enterprising in this otherwise familiar tale is its rare focus on a fast-drawing heroine in a genre that’s so often been dominated by men, although there are of course some notable exceptions, ranging from Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns to Julie Christie in McCabe and Mrs. Miller to Hailee Steinfeld in the latest True Grit.

Portman’s Jane Ballard doesn’t quite enter that canon, even if her story certainly belongs to Western legend: As a ranch mother in New Mexico Territory circa 1871, she finds herself in grave danger when her husband, Bill (Noah Emmerich), comes riding home filled with lead, warning his wife that John Bishop (McGregor, sporting a bucketful of hair dye) and his posse are headed their way with a vengeance.  

After performing grisly homemade surgery on Bill, Jane drops their little girl off at a friend’s and rides over to the broken-down abode of Dan Frost (Edgerton) to enlist his help. Right away it’s clear that these two have a past, and as Dan eventually and begrudgingly accepts to offer his protective services, the film flashes back to reveal what transpired between the would-be couple, as well as between Bill and the Bishop crew, in a narrative that takes its sweet time to reveal key pieces of information.

With a structure relying so much on dramatic quid pro quos, the scenario feels like a cop-out at times — if Dan is just a short horse ride away from the girl of his dreams, why has nothing ever been explained before? — even if it manages to mysteriously unravel Jane’s tortured past, painting the portrait of a woman forced by circumstance into some highly unpleasant situations, until finding solace with a baddie who may actually be the least bad member of his clan.

Yet a handful of plot twists are not enough to compensate for an overtly heavy, often dreary affair that rides straight into the final standoff with little elegance and a wagon train of pathos.

O’Connor does a good job ratcheting up the tension in certain places, and the long action sequence closing out the movie has a few memorable moments, with cinematographer Mandy Walker (Truth) illuminating a long overnight battle with flashes of fire and light. But all the buildup leads to a conclusion that seemed foregone from the start, and the image of Jane that emerges is one of a mother who, like any normal mother, would stop at nothing to save her child.

Portman certainly commits herself fully to the role, and one can imagine how much the double-duty of starring in and presiding over such a troubled project was no simple turkey shoot. Still, at times, the actress seems almost too graceful to be playing a woman in Jane’s predicament, especially one living under harsh conditions and suffering years of strife across the continent. (In terms of Western gals, she’s the polar opposite of Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight, incapable of muttering at least one swear word or having a single hair fall out of place. But she still is a pretty good shot.)

As a man forced to save the woman who pretty much ruined his life, Edgerton probably brings the most nuance to the movie, and the way he initially forces himself into a life-or-death situation on Jane’s behalf has a tragic side to it that’s much less macho than it is forlornly romantic. In any case, his Frost character is definitely more convincing than McGregor’s maudlin Bishop, who looks like he belongs in an episode of Deputy Dawg, while Emmerich (The Americans) does his best with a part that has him bedridden and plastered on bourbon for most of the running time.

Filming on location in New Mexico, O’Connor and his team make strong use of the stark and sometimes breathtaking exteriors, even if the drama is often confined to the Hammond homestead. Other tech contributions are solid, though this is a film whose production history may ultimately prove more memorable than what’s been produced: In Jane Got a Gun, the real bullets were the ones fired behind the camera.

Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Production companies: Boies/Schiller Film Group, 1821 Media, Handsomecharlie Films, Stone Village Pictures, in association with Straight Up Films
Cast: Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Noah Emmerich, Boyd Holbrook
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Screenwriters: Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis, Joel Edgerton, based on a story by Brian Duffield
Producers: Natalie Portman, Zack Schiller, Scott Steindorff, Aleen Keshishian, Scott Lastaiti, Terry Dougas, Mary Regency Boies
Executive producers: David Boies, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Ryan Kavanaugh, Tucker Tooley, Dylan Russell, Chris Coen, Paris Latsis, Jason Rose
Director of photography: Mandy Walker
Production designers: Tim Grimes, Jim Oberlander
Costume designers: Catherine George, Terry Anderson
Editor: Alan Cody
Composers: Lisa Gerrard, Marcello de Francisci
Casting director: Billy Hopkins

Rated R, 97 minutes

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