Jane Got a Gun is a film with a chequered history to say the least – you might remember reading about it. I was initially excited about Jane Got a Gun because Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin) was attached to direct, but Ramsay didn’t show up for the first day of shooting and the project fell into a state of disrepair. Before Ramsey’s no-show, Michael Fassbender had left due to scheduling issues, and Joel Edgerton, initially slated to play the villain, moved roles. The script was rewritten, with input from Edgerton himself, and Gavin O’Connor, who had worked with Edgerton on his previous film Warrior, was drafted in last minute to direct. Natalie Portman, who plays the title role and is also one of a long list of producers, has been one of the few constants.
The film is set in the late 19th century, in the Old West. Portman plays Jane, the wife of a former criminal (Noah Emmerich) who decided to leave the Bishop Boys, a gang of ruthless outlaws led by John Bishop (Ewan McGregor), to be with her. When her husband is injured, Jane enlists the help of former lover Dan Frost (Edgerton) to defend her homestead and, hopefully, extricate herself from the clutches of the gang.
There is some evidence in Jane Got a Gun of its topsy-turvy production period, but I was surprised by how cohesive it felt. Like most westerns, the story is pretty straightforward – Jane and Dan spend most of the film fortifying the house and talking about their pasts, which works out well, because Portman and Edgerton make for engaging company. Ewan McGregor, playing against type as the villain, is effective, although the film doesn’t really give him enough to do. But he does the best he can with what scenes he gets, and ultimately, by the conclusion, the film has built up enough goodwill for its leads that the final house-invasion confrontation summons up some genuine tension and thrills.
The New Mexico landscape is nicely shot by Mandy Walker and her cinematography, along with some sweeping music by Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci, give the film enough of an identity that it doesn’t feel like an identikit Western. Gavin O’Connor has held the thing together impressively, giving the film a pretty consistent tone. The only times this wavers is during the many flashback sequences that flesh out the backstory. It’s impossible to say whether the original script relied so heavily on flashbacks or whether they were introduced to bring some clarity to the narrative, and you could argue their use is a structural weakness (particularly as they jump about quite a lot), but I felt the flashbacks, with the exception of one or two cheesy sequences, actually worked rather well. The script, meanwhile, which we know went through rewrites, is generally sturdy; there are a couple of ropey moments in there, but also one or two genuinely heartfelt exchanges.
Films with less-than-ideal production cycles often end up as confused messes, lacking a clear vision. I don’t think that can be said about Jane Got a Gun, which, despite the reliance on flashback, is a lean and gritty western. Portman is convincing as Jane, a heroine who is fragile and fearless in equal measure, and Joel Edgerton brings calm class to his hard-drinking good guy role. The film’s ending is the only part of the narrative that feels rushed, w rapping things up a tad too neatly for my liking. Yes, the film we’ve finally been presented with is more mainstream than we might have expected, but it works on its own terms.