A film review by Craig J. Koban June 12, 2016


2016, R, 98 mins.


Natalie Portman as Jane Hammond  /  Joel Edgerton as Dan Frost  /  Ewan McGregor as Colin McCann  /  Rodrigo Santoro as Fitchum  /  Noah Emmerich as Bill Hammond  /  Boyd Holbrook as Vic  /  Alex Manette as Buck  /  Todd Stashwick as O'Dowd  /  James Burnett as Cunny Charlie  /  Sam Quinn as Slow Jeremiah  /  Chad Brummett as Theodore  /  Boots Southerland as Marshal

Directed by Gavin O'Connor  /  Written by Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis, and Joel Edgerton

Sometimes, it’s very difficult for a film critic – or filmgoers, for that matter – to segregate themselves apart from a film’s rather tortuous production history while screening it and especially later while reviewing it.  

The new western JANE GOT A GUN is proof positive of this, and calling the film “new” is almost a misnomer.  

The near scandalous story behind the making and distributing of this film could arguably make for a thoroughly intoxicating documentary.  Announced in 2012 and shot in 2013 after going through multiple changes in lead actors, cinematographers, and even directors, this Natalie Portman starring and produced effort was originally supposed to be released in 2014.  Then the film’s original distributor filed for bankruptcy, leaving it in hellish release limbo.  The Weinstein Company finally swooped in, only to unceremoniously release the film in a scant number of cinemas this past January, where it died a very quick theatrical life. 

Films like this that have such a troublesome life cycle making its way to your local cinemas are usually qualitative nightmares.  However, I’m rather pleased to report that JANE GOT A GUN doesn't really showcase its questionable past at all on screen, seeing as the resulting product is a rather lovingly shot, wonderfully performed, and evocatively rendered western.  Directed with a sure-fire swiftness and assured eye for period detail by Gavin O’Connor (whom previously made the best hockey movie of all-time in MIRACLE and the terrible underrated sports drama WARRIOR), JANE GOT A GUN certainly does not radically depart from tried and true western motifs and troupes, nor is it really trying to.   Instead, it’s an attractively mounted genre effort that really knows how to harness it with largely satisfying results.  That, and it’s refreshingly rare to see a western (usually dominated by massive amounts of testosterone) that features a reasonably strong and assured female presence leading the charge. 



Set in 1870’s New Mexico, the film introduces us to the titular character (Portman, as radiant and headstrong as ever) as she tries to create some semblance of life with her husband Bill (a decent Noah Emmerich) on the frontier.  Unfortunately, Bill returns home one day to Jane with a rather large number of bullets in his back, breathing on death’s door.  Bill, it is revealed, is a former outlaw that ran into the wrong group of bandits in the Bishop Boys, which is ran by an old nemesis of his that now wants bloody comeuppance, John Bishop (a wonderfully cast against type Ewan McGregor).  Jane tends to her spouse’s wounds the best she can under the dire circumstances, and Bill is on a slow road to recovery, but he’s in absolutely no condition to defend his home from Bishop and his goon squad that are on their way to their dwelling with a shoot first, ask questions later mentality. 

Jane is no weakling, though, seeing as she’s a feisty and independent minded woman that can hold her own in just about any situation.  However, even she has to personally concede that she alone is no mere match against Bishop’s bloodthirsty marauders.  With very few other options at her disposal, Jane is forced to turn to her ex-fiancé Dan Frost (a reliably stalwart and convincing Joel Edgerton, who also co-wrote the screenplay) for assistance in defending her husband and home.  Through a series of flashbacks in the narrative, we learn that Dan and Jane were indeed an item back in the day, but he was forced to leave her due to military commitments in the war, after which time Jane presumed him to be dead...and then she incorrectly felt forced her to move on with her life.  Facing a crisis of conscience in terms of battling whether or not he should defend a woman that he once loved (and her husband that he now resents), Dan is overcome with honor bound goodness and begrudgingly decides to pitch in and keep Jane safe in what will become a very hostile and violent altercation. 

JANE GOT A GUN sets up an overtly familiar western premise from the get-go (man with a shady past trying to do good in the present, only to have his past come back to haunt him and his family) that seems like it has been regurgitated from countless other genre examples.  Yet, the film overcomes its own adherence to conventions by the pleasingly straightforward manner that O’Connor presents the central three-way conflict in the film.  He also really knows how to sumptuously drum up the classical visual iconography of westerns.  JANE GOT A GUN feels wondrously and bucolically inviting, yet simultaneously hostile and foreboding, and O’Connor gets an awful lot of aesthetic mileage in how well he shoots both interiors and exteriors of his film’s dangerous world.  JANE GOT A GUN was shot on film, which is the absolute right choice.  Digitally shooting this western would have all but removed its immersively grainy, textured, and tactile look and feel. 

JANE GOT A GUN is also more richly intriguing for how it’s a violent, blood soaked western that’s more interested in being character and story driven first while catering to the needs of action fans a distant second.  The film certainly hones in on timeless western themes of how violence during this era permeates most aspects of peoples’ lives and how the past finds of way of creeping back up on those that want it to stay hidden, but JANE GOT A GUN is engaging for the how it taps into the fragile psychologies of it respective characters, most of them being resoundingly strong will and tough, but nevertheless harbor hidden pains and regrets that make them emotionally vulnerable.  Portman's petite and porcelain façade may not make her seem like everyone's first choice to plausibly inhabit a rough and rugged western protagonist, but she acclimatizes herself well with an authenticity of spirit and conviction.  She’s well paired with the always chameleon-like Edgerton, the Aussie actor that has a fly-in-under-the-radar knack for inhabiting his varied roles with a commanding, but low-key charisma.  He’s especially strong in JANE GOT A GUN, playing a stubbornly guarded man that’s torn between wounded pride and ultimately casting that pride away to save a woman that broke his heart.

McGregor is very good as well, playing a villain (pretty unheard of for him) that’s so deliciously amoral and soft spokenly hostile that you often have to remind yourself that he’s actually being played...by McGregor.  It’s a terrific bit of casting, even though his unscrupulous antagonist is somewhat underwritten in the film.  JANE GOT A GUN also somewhat suffers from its usage of flashbacks, which are sprinkled into the plot – sometimes smoothly, but more often than not, kind of clumsily – that provides background details as to how all of the key players knew each other in the past and came together in the present.  Structurally, the film is a bit of a wonky affair on a screenplay level, but that’s not to say that JANE GOT A GUN is not without its surprising virtues.  Yielding an impeccably robust cast, attractive period production design and cinematography, and crafty direction, this revenge western doesn’t reinvent the genre wheel, but it sure knows how to nimbly spin it rather well.  And, again, considering the infamous problem-plagued behind-the-scenes drama about the making of JANE GOT A GUN, it proudly emerges as being a far better film than it has any business being in pure retrospect and should not be instantly written off. 


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