Jane Got a Gun is neither the feminist Western revisionism its extremely limited marketing would suggest, nor the truck-stop bootleg Aerosmith CD with cheaply produced liner-notes that its title would imply. Instead, this film is a painfully drawn-out rehashing of genre cliches that seems hopelessly outdated in a post Unforgiven cinematic landscape.
I have to admit, the feminist in me was cautiously optimistic about the prospect of Natalie Portman going on a bloody quest for revenge through sun-bleached western vistas, so imagine my disappointment on learning that this is a pretty rote siege story deriving all of its dramatic tension from violence, or the threat of violence, against women — well, really just the one. Portman is the only female character with any dialogue other than a line or two for her young daughters, largely absent but also constantly under implied threat. I might have been able to forgive this genre-appropriate trope had it not been for the fact that Portman’s character is presented as largely ineffectual and dependent on the men in her life for security, which they seem sorely incapable of providing. For a 98-minute film to include two rape scenes seems excessive, even were the film not trying to present itself as featuring a strong female lead.
General rapey-ness is far from the only sin in this script, rewritten at the 11th hour by star Joel Edgerton. Dialogue-heavy exposition scenes seem to conflate antiquated vernacular with nonsensical turns of phrase, resulting in Edgerton at one point referring to the graveyard as a “bone orchard.” Lines such as this lead me to question his functional understanding of interment as well as his intention in taking a pass at the script, due largely to the fact that his character seems to have usurped the story’s ostensible protagonist by the end of the second act. The film attempts to break up its interminable talkiness with a flashback structure that fails to serve its purpose both as a narrative framing device and as a focal point of renewed interest in its characters. This movie’s past seems just as dismally boring as its present.
Edgerton’s involvement as a script doctor would appear to be the result of Jane’s turbulent production history. Director Gavin O’Connor replaced Lynne Ramsay when she failed to show up on set for the first day of shooting. Edgerton was originally cast as the villain, but stepped in to replace Michael Fassbender as the male lead due to scheduling conflicts. Edgerton’s shoes were to be filled by Jude Law, who was then replaced by Bradley Cooper, who also dropped out and was eventually replaced by Ewan McGregor. All this while the company handling distribution, Relativity Media, filed for bankruptcy. Though the long and troubled production process is undoubtedly responsible for some of Jane’s shortcomings, its worth noting that films such as Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo faced similar obstacles, and they turned out just fine.
While Jane finally assembled a strong ensemble in spite of its musical-chairs casting history, they never coalesce into an interesting dynamic. Portman is certainly capable of carrying a film, but seems oddly ill at ease with a role she has been slated for since the beginning of the project. Edgerton’s involvement with the script has left him with all the best (and worst) lines, while Noah Emmerich is essentially a prop as Portman’s bullet-ridden current husband. But perhaps the weakest link is Ewan McGregor, whose menace is connoted more by his bad-guy-mustache-and-cigar than his actual performance. Portman has zero chemistry with any of her male co-stars, and as these relationships are intended to be the dramatic engine that drives the story, the resultant product is lifeless and dull. In addition to its notable lack of women other than Portman, this cast is also in the running for the whitest of 2016, as the only black face I saw belonged to a horse.
Troubled production not withstanding, Jane Got a Gun proves incapable of standing on its own merits. As far as female-driven Westerns go, it may not be as terrible as Jonathan Kaplan’s notoriously stupid Bad Girls — the knock-off of Young Guns, but with women, or as bizarre as Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead, but ultimately Jane Got a Gun should have stayed in its holster. Rated R for violence and some language.