Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun
After a famously troubled production capped off a bankruptcy-driven distributor shuffle, Jane Got a Gun, which Natalie Portman produced and stars in, has finally arrived in theaters, three years after The Troubles began (Michael Fassbender exiting the project in February 2013 turned out to be a harbinger of things to come). So after all the drama and strife does Jane Got a Gun at least deliver a film worth watching? Eh. It’s not great, but it’s not awful. There are far worse http://bit.ly/1OUGqyl movies out there. But it’s nothing special either. Jane Got a Gun is a textbook-standard Western and nothing more.
Portman stars as Jane, a frontier woman making her home in New Mexico Territory circa 1871. Jane lives on an isolated ranch with her young daughter, and the film jumps right in, with her husband, Bill “Ham” Hammond (Noah Emmerich), returning home riddled with bullets and muttering dire warnings of the Bishop Boys. This is sufficient to send Jane in panicked flight searching for help, dropping off her daughter with a fellow rancher for protection and seeking out Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), her ex-beau whom she ditched for Ham. He’s rude and reluctant, but does ultimately help her, and then Jane becomes a siege movie in which Dan and Jane have to defend the homestead from the Bishop Boys, headed up by a mustache-twirling Ewan McGregor as the chief Bishop.
Despite the trim, to-the-point opening, the film’s structure intercuts present-day scenes with Dan and Jane’s soap opera past, showing how they ended up bitter exes. Basically it boils down to—Jane was an impatient brat. There is a clear and easy opportunity to make the whole thing a simple misunderstanding that ended tragically for star-crossed lovers, with Dan marching off to the Civil War and being presumed dead, so Jane moves on, but Jane explicitly states she simply grew tired of waiting for Dan to come home. “You don’t know what it was like,” she says, “I saw dead bodies.” This conversation occurs literal minutes after Dan has told her about being held in a Confederate POW camp, so yeah, HE GETS IT, JANE.
It’s really hard to have any sympathy for Jane. Characters making bad decisions is fine, but there has to be some acknowledgment of the bad decision. Joel Edgerton has a scripting credit, and there’s an effort to suggest Dan and Jane see the story of their love affair differently that feels in keeping with Edgerton’s work on The Gift, which is a film entirely about perspective. It smartens up the conflict some, but ultimately is undercut by the weird choice to make it explicit that Jane really had no reason to leave home except that the Civil War was a total bummer.
It creates cognitive dissonance as everything about the film tells us Jane is our sympathetic protagonist, except that, because of Jane’s supremely lackluster motivation, Dan ends up being the sympathetic one. It puts them on unequal footing which is very unsatisfying, especially in the context of the too-pat ending. I can easily see a slightly darker version of this film with a less conventional ending, and some studio flak interfering and demanding a more traditional resolution that really doesn’t work with the preceding ninety minutes of storytelling. But that’s what we’re stuck with.
Jane is also not a particularly impressive viewing. Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) stepped in to direct after Lynne Ramsey left, and he does so effectively, if uninspiringly. His direction is so by the numbers it seems like he just wanted to get the f*cking thing over with, and cinematographer Mandy Walker (Truth) doesn’t add much visual flair, either. The original cinematographer, Darius Kohndji (The Immigrant and one of Woody Allen’s regular collaborators) left with Ramsey, and you can’t help but wonder what Jane would have looked like with them behind the camera. There are shades of a more complex story and a lot of untapped potential in Jane Got a Gun, but the end result is a competent but totally forgettable movie.
Attached - Natalie Portman at the New York Jewish Film Festival screening of A Tale Of Love and Darkness last week.