The January doldrums strike hard in Jane Got A Gun, an otherwise competent and richly shot Western that places far too much stock in its bland characters and unsurprising structure. The film, directed by Gavin O’Connor, is notably far more concerned with characters over action, but with clichéd personalities and paper-thin motivations spurning the drama into motion, it never truly gets off the ground.
Set in the New Mexico Territory sometime in 1871, the movie starts off with a bullet-ridden Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) riding back home to warn his wife Jane (Natalie Portman) that a specter from their past, Colin McCann (a mustachioed Ewan McGregor) is hunting them down. This doesn’t sit well with Jane, so she packs up her daughter, heads to a nearby town, and pleads for help from former fiancé Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), who refuses to aid her initially because she might have broken his heart, or maybe he broke hers. It’s not clear, but as much as the movie seems to be rocketing to an eye-roll of a love triangle, the script honors the mournful Wild West atmosphere and is blessedly slight on romantic overtones.
Of course, Frost comes around, and the two spend the rest of the movie turning her ramshackle house into a stronghold in anticipation for the incoming gang attack. The initial problem with Jane Got A Gun is that it doesn’t trust that should-be-tense set-up enough, instead focusing on reductive flashbacks that slowly reveal the romantic past between her and Frost. It attempts to string along small connective mysteries in an interesting way, but coupled with the slow-dissolve transitions and twangy Western music, it reduces a handsomely made movie into a dull-as-dirt slog.
Some of those flashbacks show some grit, fortunately, especially a brothel-set sequence towards the movie’s mid-section that reveals the true cause for the blood feud between the Hammonds and McCann. It’s short, swift, claustrophobically shot by O’Connor, and hands-down the best part of the movie. Still, the scene isn’t quite enough to completely save the 90 minutes it’s sandwiched into.
Portman carries the movie and prevents it from completely succumbing into a snoozing tedium, but Jane just isn’t all that interesting to start with. Her motivations lie in caring for her daughters and protecting her family, and that flashback gives her a bit more of a personal agenda against McCann, but the movie’s simple structure does nothing to enhance her cause. It takes her quite a while to get to the mad, furious woman out for vengeance that the stingingly frank title suggests. She does get her gun, but she just takes too long to care about using it.
Everyone around her is essentially the same case; absolutely zero of them are bad, but none pop. Edgerton is probably the best of the bunch, taking the brunt of the action-heavy beats with expected fervor and playing up some of the movie’s more ham-fisted emotional beats with far more sincerity than they deserve. Emmerich doesn’t get to do much besides lay dying in a bed, but as the backbone of that brothel scene he shines in surprisingly brutal motion. Least served well here is McGregor, whose bad guy is the child-drowning, sex-slave kind of generic evil. He’s the entire reason Jane needs to get that gun, and that’s maybe the most disappointing thing of all.
To prepare for his arrival, Jane and Frost set about crafting booby traps around the Hammond farm to even out the odds of the Bishop Boys’ large numbers. Don’t get too excited about some Skyfall or Home Alone-level inventiveness here, though. Even though a good chunk of the middle section is spent in these training montage and battle preparation sequences, the ultimate result is a few explosive jars of glass shards on the lawn. What’s initially intriguing (“Is this the whole movie?” I asked myself as Jane and Frost worked obsessively with preparing for McCann like he was the final boss in a Final Fantasy game) becomes yet another tick-mark of disappointment for Jane Got A Gun.
It is, essentially, the whole movie, and despite having the potential to subvert its western roots, the ultimate resolution to their preparation is a whole-hearted “That’s it?” moment of decisive conclusion. Perhaps that’s screenwriters Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis and (yep) Edgerton honoring the languidly paced film that came before. I certainly didn’t want it to become a Michael Bay movie or anything, but there’s a way to make something tense and exciting while remaining low-key. But Jane Got A Gun is so aggressively low-key for such a long time that it’s hard to drum up sympathy for any of its characters, even when they’re all trying to kill one another.
O’Connor’s direction is steadfast and interesting (besides the befuddling night-shot finale), but the movie never quite escapes being generically Western – corn fields and buttes at sunset and all. Maybe that’s the secret genius of Jane Got A Gun. Maybe all of these extremely straightforward aspects of the movie – the characters, the plot, the damn title – are meant to be a statement on the status of Westerns in a society more preoccupied with big explosions and cinematic universes and nostalgic appropriation as a means of sucking money from those unwilling to take the time to care about characters in between the bombast. But okay, yeah, probably not.
Jane Got A Gun shows momentary glimpses into low-key excitement, but the movie is too languidly structured and lacks captivating-enough characters to turn into the satisfyingly succinct burst of entertainment that its title suggests.