A hardened woman in the Old West faces the haunts of her past when her once outlaw husband comes home near death after a tangle with a notorious gang, who, he says, are soon to arrive to finish the job.
Set in 1871, the film opens with “Ham” Hammond (Noah Emmerich) riding home, almost making it to his home before falling off his horse, his body riddled with bullets. Jane (Natalie Portman), his wife, has spent the last few years rebuilding her life, taking care of her young child and staying true to a man who is more than just her husband. She gets him inside and he warns her that trouble is coming. She should leave and not come back. He is speaking of the infamous Bishop Boys Gang, led by the ferocious Colin McCann (Ewan McGregor), a man Jane has dealt with before. The name spooks her, and she quickly rounds up her daughter and drops her at a neighbor’s, planning to defend her home, even while her husband can’t.
Desperate for help, and with no one else to run to, she rides to see Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), her former fiancé, a man she left years earlier when she thought he perished in the war. Naturally, Frost is not quick to say yes to the woman he still loves, hateful of the man he believes stole her away. He eventually relents and agrees to take up arms to protect her. As Ham lies paralyzed in the house, Frost and Jane forge a plan and a strategy for stopping McCann. As they work and talk, we witness flashback to their story, learning how all these people have come to where they are now.
Arguably, the larger story of Jane Got A Gun, a loose remake of the 1971 Raquel Welch film, Hannie Caulder, is the troubled production that saw the movie take years to get to the big screen, wallowing in legal battles after losing its original director Lynne Ramsay and co-stars Michael Fassbender, Jude Law, and Bradley Cooper. Certainly a different movie under those names, the released version, directed by Gavin O’Connor, is a good-looking Western, stylish and well-made that isn’t too concerned about re-inventing the wheel, but rather crafting and presenting a compelling story. For the most part, it succeeds.
That stems mostly from the fine performances of the cast. All are more than convincing. Portman, who is a demure woman, seems at first so small in the vast open landscape, swallowed up in the majesty of the setting, delivers a touching portrayal of a devoted wife to man who, in one emotionally charged moment, does the right thing and convinces her (and us) of his worth. Portman doesn’t play it soft though, never the frail, vulnerable type, yet knowing when she alone is not enough. She is the only woman in a world overrun by men, and to see her contend with that is one of the better elements of screenplay (of which Edgerton co-wrote). Edgerton (as Frost) is equally good, a challenged man with call for enough (by what he knows) to have hate in his heart, but good enough to know that she must have her reasons for why she left. There is a refreshing honesty about Frost, a fighter by necessity, who is so in love with Jane, he sacrifices every breath he has to make sure her happiness. He watches and he listens and his reactions to her are not those we expect from the Western genre. A standout too, and one easily overlooked by the two leads, is McGregor, who all but disappears into the villainous role (teaming up with Portman for the first time since the earlier Star Wars trilogy). With his gentlemanly attire, slicked back, black hair and devilish mustache, he might seem cartoonish with one glance, but that changes quickly, especially in an opening moment with a doomed man he interrogates. His presence throughout is weighty.
Issues arise with the familiarity with the story, as the genre has seen plenty of standoffs at a single home defending against invaders, from Clint Eastwood‘s The Outlaw Josey Wales to last years quietly affecting Slow West to name only a few. There’s little suspense in the build-up as, predictably, the good guys always have just enough time to suit-up and set up as it were before the bad ones arrive, the equivalent of the hero in action movies gearing up for their inevitable final fight. Still, Jane Got A Gun manages to find a little creativity with that trope and when the first wave of McCann’s men arrive, the result is, shall we say, explosive. In fact, this moment and several others are handled very well, as O’Conner paces the action with deliberate patience and allows the tension to settle instead of resorting to a montage of flickering violence. Case in point is the aforementioned first attack that almost courageously keeps its distance when the temptation to put it at a different level must have been high. As it is, our point of view makes perfect sense and the effect is strong. He does dabble a bit too much in flashbacks, which perforates the story far too often, and gets dull quickly, but it’s a minor point.
As the Western steadily marks its return, Jane Got A Gun is a worthy entry and perhaps if behind the scenes pressures and problems had not been so much a reason, it could have been great. But with films like Slow West and the brilliant Bone Tomahawk innovating new directions for the genre, it doesn’t quite stand out.
Jane Got A Gun (2016) Review
Movie description: A hardened woman in the Old West faces the haunts of her past when her once outlaw husband comes home near death after a tangle with a notorious gang, who, he says, are soon to arrive to finish the job.
Director(s): Gavin O'Connor
Actor(s): Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Noah Emmerich
- Our Score