Maybe it’s just my experience, but it might tell you something about how rare female-fronted Westerns are that some of my older relatives have asked me if Jane Got A Gun is related to Calamity Jane. As has been reflected in the vast majority of the genre throughout its cinematic history, men are the agents of frontier mythology and the American dream to such a great extent that women’s options are next to non-existent.
In this case, the eponymous Jane (Natalie Portman) is quietly devastated when her husband Bill ‘Ham’ Hammond (Noah Emmerich) rides home after an altercation with the fearsome Bishop boys (led by Ewan McGregor), riddled with bullets and barely alive. Worse still, the gang are following Ham back to Jane, with whom they also have history, and the couple’s young daughter Kate (Maisie McMaster).
Forewarned is forearmed, but the trouble is, Ham also has a bounty on his head, so Jane has no recourse from the protection of the law against the oncoming siege. Desperate, she turns to her former fiancée and veteran gunslinger Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) for his help in fortifying and defending her home. Dan reluctantly agrees, but the former lovers find old wounds are reopened as they await the ruthless outlaws.
I don’t want to read too deeply into the production shambles behind Jane Got A Gun, although the basics are already known. Gavin O’Connor’s film is fine, but it feels as if some of the less enthusiastic reviews have knocked a star off their rating for the film because it wasn’t directed by Lynne Ramsey. The We Need To Talk About Kevin director quit the production a day before shooting started after falling out with the producers, prompting a seismic shuffle of the cast and crew that saw Michael Fassbender, Jude Law and Bradley Cooper arrive and then depart over a matter of weeks.
Furthermore, Edgerton ended up switching roles from Bishop to Dan, and had a hand in rewriting the script. Brian Duffield’s original draft featured on the 2011 Black List and it reads more like one of Tarantino’s Westerns, complete with graphic violence, colourful dialogue and chapter headings, than the significantly rewritten final version on which Edgerton and Anthony Tambakis are co-credited. But while the fiasco of its production might be fascinating to some, Jane isn’t anything like the calamity that its muddled genesis would suggest.
It’s a relatively straightforward story, hung across a fractured narrative structure, but in the main, it’s a film led by performances. Natalie Portman has been with this project since its inception and having seen it through to the end, her turn as Jane is appropriately steely and practical.
Between Portman, Edgerton and McGregor, we have something of a Star Wars prequel reunion and while all three have moved on in the decade since Revenge Of The Sith, this proves again, as if proof were needed, that they’re more than capable when given good material. On sight alone, McGregor is very impressive, overcoming an intrinsically wrong-looking black dye job and some villainous airs straight out of The Perils Of Pauline, to build real malice into his sneering outlaw.
Edgerton is also very good, in equal turns tough and pathetic as the weary Dan, whose entry into the story is the basis of a decidedly anti-romantic sub-plot. Although the romantic history between Dan and Jane is alluded to over the course of the story, Jane is ceaselessly loyal to her husband, if regretful of how things went with Dan. As befits a film with noble aspirations for its female protagonist, it needn’t turn into a love story and it really doesn’t.
Less effective are the flashbacks which interrupt the action and serve to take the wind out of the film’s sails at certain points. These are undoubtedly a product of rewrites and begin to grate as the film repeatedly changes perspectives and time frames. While the chemistry between Edgerton and Portman paints a picture of their history together, these flashbacks serve to spell it out in a not especially mythic fashion and sometimes upset the tone completely, in the case of a misjudged interlude involving a hot air balloon.
What has survived to this version of the story is the constant implication that Jane’s situation could have been different had she allied with a man other than Ham – on one hand, she could have been happy with the soldier fiancée or miserable and abused with the outlaw, but underpinning her fierce loyalty to her injured husband is the fact that she chose him. She selfishly drafts in Dan after years of never speaking to him, but she’s proud enough to stand up for herself every time it really counts. It’s not romantic, but that’s not to say that it’s unfeeling, and that crucial distinction is the source of the film’s emotional intelligence.
Jane Got A Gun doesn’t have Ramsey or Fassbender, but it has a copper-bottomed premise and O’Connor turned out to be a more than capable hand in getting this dryly subversive piece back on track. Westerns are set against the backdrop of a mission of civilisation, taming a vast and complicated land, and while all of the collective production gubbins may have civilised the film to some extent, this is a suitably gritty and lived-in entry into that canon.
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