Director Gavin O’Connor
Starring Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor
Released on 22nd August 2016
If I took you through Jane Got A Gun’s chequered history, it would last longer than my review. Suffice to say, original director Lynne Ramsey quit and was replaced in a day by Gavin O’Connor, the main villain was originally due to be played by Bradley Cooper and Michael Fassbender was lined up to play the gunslinger – but the list of names goes on. And on. The only person that stuck with the project was Natalie Portman herself, but maybe that was because she was a producer.
The film was originally shot in 2013 but only arrived in UK cinemas this April, overshadowed by Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead – also out on DVD this week – and the widely distributed Bastille Day. In other words, it slipped in and out comparatively quietly, leaving the impression of something of a jinx. Was it worth keeping the faith?
It’s a western – and as a fan of the genre it doesn’t give me any pleasure to say it might not have helped its cause. That’s just one of its limitations. Another is the thin story, one that isn’t quite what you expect from the title. It would be more accurate to call it Jane Got A Gunslinger or Jane Hired A Gun. The lady of the title (Natalie Portman) looks out of her window one day to see her husband (Noah Emmerich) arrive home badly shot. He’s been used as target practice by the Bishop brothers, the local outlaws, and now they’re on their way to finish the job. Jane needs help to protect her home and approaches gunslinger Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton). But he’s reluctant to take the job.
The film starts with a picture of cosy domesticity, Jane reading a bedtime story to her little girl. She’s fiercely protective of her: we learn that she lost a previous child, so it makes sense that she puts the child in the care of a friend until all the drama is over. And that seems to be the end of the whole mother and child storyline – except that it comes back towards the end. It would be a spoiler to tell you how, but I will say that it’s a touch cheesy and really rather unnecessary.
It’s not the only part of the story that we don’t really need. There’s frequent flashbacks, which include Jane’s earlier relationship with Frost – a romantic interlude in an early hot air balloon is totally superfluous. It’s as if the team of scriptwriters – which included Edgerton – felt the story needed padding to fill the mandatory 90 minutes. And yet the back story of the relationship between the two could easily have been filled in by the interaction between Jane and Frost and probably would have given their relationship, then and now, more depth.
There’s not that much to her relationship either with Frost or with her husband. For somebody who’s supposed to be a strong woman – this is, undoubtedly, intended to be a feminist western, despite a man being in the director’s chair – she is remarkably dependent on having a man at her side. First there’s Frost, then when he doesn’t return from the Civil War, she takes up with Hammond and marries him and so it goes on. She does have strength, but it only comes to the fore when she’s protecting her child, like the proverbial lioness and her cub.
On the plus side, the film it slowly but skilfully narrows down the setting for the action, starting in the wide landscapes of New Mexico and gradually confining it into the small space of the homestead. With its gloomy lighting – a lot of scenes are set in near darkness – those scenes work well especially on the smaller screen. The shame is that they don’t provoke the skin-prickling tension the way they should.
The other plus side is the two main actors, even if Portman does look implausibly smooth skinned for a woman living in the ferocity of the Mexican sun and wind. But she has determination and resilience and credibility. This is actually one of Edgerton’s earlier films – he went on to write, direct and star in The Gift the following year – but he’s solid, gritty and the kind of person you’d want in your corner in a tight spot. He’s also a glutton for punishment, living a short ride away from his former fiancé and her current husband. Ewan McGregor as the leader of the outlaws is less convincing, with enormous white teeth – the West wasn’t renowned for its cosmetic dentistry – and a moustache that makes him almost unrecognisable. It’s a smaller role and one that doesn’t give him much to work with.
For all its troubled history, Jane Got A Gun has ended up being little more than adequate, with a couple of decent performances that are better than the story deserves. Jane might have got a gun, but her aim wasn’t great.
Jane Got A Gun is released on DVD on Monday, 22 August and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 25 August.