There’s surprisingly little Jane in Jane Got a Gun. Her story is pretty thoroughly established in the opening minutes, after which she spends most of the runtime preparing for the final showdown in between flashbacks, which mainly consist of the men in her life conspiring over what to do with her. It is tempting to blame such structural oddities on the film’s long and tortuous production process, with plenty of rewrites and eventually three people including the male lead named as writers. But while undoubtedly Joel Edgerton Got a Screenwriting Credit is a snappier title, in truth this is a solidly put together story which, for all its failings, can’t be accused of misusing Western story tropes.
The story begins in earnest when Jane (Natalie Portman) is forced to head go look for a gunslinger after her husband’s old gang tracks him down and puts a bullet in him. She makes a beeline for war hero Dan Frost, who gives her a frosty reception. It’s quickly clear that the two have a “history”, complete with ominous quotation marks for emphasis, and so the setup for the big battle begins, as do the explanatory flashbacks.
As the meat of the film unfolds, far from suffering from its unusual structure, the real issue turns out to be that the story is far too standard. For much of the remaining running time, Jane isn’t necessarily victimised (much), but she doesn’t particularly do anything either. With her husband bedridden after catching a bad case of getting hit by bullets, that leaves Joel Edgerton’s war hero to do most of the metaphorical and literal heavy lifting.
In the flashbacks, his love story with Jane is explained more fully – they were engaged until he went off to war (with all of the “I’ll be home by Christmas” cliche unashamedly present) and when he returned several years late to find her gone, he went looking for her. This is where Ewan McGregor’s villainous outlaw comes in, with flashback Jane seeking the passage and protection offered by his gang. He is introduced by a ridiculously tired scene, establishing his villainy by remorselessly torturing a man for information – a man who has a family, the script is ploddingly careful to note.
Family is a theme Jane Got a Gun returns to throughout, and Jane’s role as a hero protecting her homestead ties it effectively to westerns of old, but at a cost. The obsessive focus on family limits the film’s ability to present itself as the revisionist feminist western it seems to want to be. With everything told through the prism of the people she cares for – including children who are barely glimpsed, never mind given compelling characterisation – Jane finds herself ultimately tied to the actions of the men around her, and limited by them. That misstep was not a necessary one. Claims that the genre forces this kind of justification for Jane’s actions are easily countered by the much more successful female characters in Deadwood, where the Jane character was thoroughly flawed but never had to apologise or explain her life as a gunslinger. Even if the family focus was key to this particular story, that throws up a rich range of themes that are neatly ignored in the final film.
It is easy to imagine original director Lynne Ramsay exploring these issues significantly more effectively. Instead, Jane Got a Gun has been released in the form of a competent but circumscribed western, squandering a huge amount of potential in favour of a story so safe it’s listless.
At the film’s climax it shows itself capable of effective suspense, surprise and action, but by that stage it has failed in a much wider way. This is a film that presents itself in the mould of great revisionist westerns like Unforgiven, then instantly retreats back to the comfort of a forgettable story. At the beginning, a theme is set up that the film occasionally remembers to pick back up again – the question of whether there is an opposite of redemption, whether good people turn bad and why. Its answer for Jane appears to be: “Good people don’t turn bad, but they do sometimes turn into western protagonists.”
There are countless examples of such interesting ideas being raised then swiftly ignored or dismissed, possibly remnants of the original script that created so much buzz half a decade ago. The most striking message from Jane Got a Gun might simply be that good scripts can turn bad.
Dir: Gavin O’Connor
Scr: Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis, Joel Edgerton
Cast: Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich, Rodrigo Santoro, Boyd Holbrook, Ewan McGregor
Prd: Natalie Portman, Terry Dougas, Aleen Keshishlan, Scott LaStaiti, Mary Regency Boies, Zack Schiller, Scott Steindorff
DOP: Mandy Walker
Music: Lisa Gerrard, Marcello De Francisci
Country: United States
Run time: 98 minutes
Jane Got a Gun is in cinemas now.