Natalie Portman means business in this Western
Jane Got a Gun takes us to 1860s New Mexico, where Jane (Natalie Portman) readies for revenge after her outlaw husband returns home wounded, with the Bishop Brothers hot in pursuit. To fight against the gang, she enlists her ex-lover Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton). Surrounded by the two men she’s loved, while her enemies are centring in, Jane gets lost in memories. With her, we discover what the Bishop Brothers want – and why she left Dan behind.
Director Gavin O’Connor delivers in Jane Got a Gun an entertaining watch. Portman cuts a striking figure as the protagonist, intent on defending her home and the man who once saved her. While it sticks to a very conventional, much treaded plot, it‘s at the very least satisfying – the ending pays off, even if it is predictable from plains away. Acting is even. Ewan McGregor as Bishop is all you want in a charming, charismatic and detestable villain, while Edgerton credibly pitches between raging drunkenness and tearful regret.
Yet, while the film isn’t unpleasant to watch, it is also lacking in anything to make it stand out. The plot has been so well re-hashed in previous westerns that it feels a little lazy. It’s a successor to the grandiose old-fashioned take on the Western, rather than the grittier, more realistic approach favoured by more recent films. All of its flaws flow from this. That is not to say that the grandiose Western should not be – only that it’s more difficult to get right, especially now, a long way from its peak epoch.
Jane Got a Gun has all of the elements of the grandiose Western, but they’re not quite right. There’s oversentimental, flimsy dialogue (a speech about how fear helps you survive; metaphors about shining sunlight; and a line goes “whatever happens, I got to put my face to it”). There’s swelling music that’s inappropriately timed, commencing as we watch men combust into flames. There’s a love story utterly idealised and sign-posted, to the point that it’s a struggle to feel any sympathy for the wounded Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) lying in bed. There’s also ridiculous, and unrealistic bravado: would you really defend your house at all costs, against terrible odds, where there was the option to run? And finally, a panoply of Western tropes: a suave, elegant villain at the command of a repulsive, psychologically twisted crew with bad teeth; a house siege; protagonists seeming to stand a reasonable chance against a significantly greater number; characters with no-nonsense accents.
What’s perhaps more disappointing, however, is the complexity the film’s characters show – or lack thereof. Jane is a ‘strong woman’, and not much more. While perhaps this is not as negative a trope as what female characters are usually saddled with, it is a trope, nonetheless. She has nothing of the heart-breaking depths of Hilary Swank in The Homesman, or the arresting pragmatism of Lili Simmons in Bone Tomahawk. It seems like Portman could have carried something more layered. The same, of course, goes for Ewan McGregor, who really does extraordinary work with what he is given.
If you’re a Western aficionado, Jane Got a Gun is a good way to while away your time. It’s much like an average rom-com: comforting in its familiarity. There’s not much reason to stop by though, if you’re expecting the exceptional.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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