Jane Got a Gun is an almost great survival western, but this clever story feels just a bit too small on the production side at times while not quite coming together for half its runtime.
Jane, her husband Bill, and their daughter are set up out West on a homestead, but when Bill barely makes it home with a back full of bullets their past has caught up to them. Bill tells Jane that the Bishops, and old gang Bill used to run with, has tracked them down and Jane is left to protect their family. Enlisting some help from someone from her past, Dan Frost, he and Jane are left to defend the homestead as the characters’ pasts become revealed in their down time.
That history I referred to is revealed through flashback throughout the film and it is the first two-thirds of the film’s weak spot. The flashbacks just feel tacked on, clunky and completely unnecessary. The characters could have just as easily talked about these things, so it’s no surprise that the last couple of flashbacks work when they are framed in the context of showing us what the characters are talking about. These beats also provide a couple of key “twists” to the narrative, but putting them in a more proper context made them feel right in the film.
Gavin O’Connor stepped in to direct this film at the last minute and, while he makes the most of it, you can’t help but feel it around a few corners. The set pieces seemed a little underdeveloped, even if they are effective. The aforementioned flashbacks also feel like a little more planning time could have smoothed that out across the board. Also, the ending, a little more time and maybe they rethink that one. He does get some beautiful shots of the western vistas of the film and he keeps the movie moving right along at a clip. There is not a wasted scene in the film, even the flashbacks are essential in all their clunkiness, and I think he could have even gotten away with a couple more scenes with the Bishops; John Bishop especially.
O’Connor does get great work out of his actors, with Joel Edgerton being the standout of the picture. Edgerton helped himself by giving the film a re-write for O’Connor, and you could argue that he kind of became the star of a movie called Jane Got a Gun. That argument aside, he really is quite great in the picture. He doesn’t come in and take over the picture, he and Jane are a team, but he wears the history between the two of them so well and is entirely believable every step of the way. He and Natalie Portman have a strong chemistry and this is pretty essential for the film to navigate the romantic situation going on in the film. Portman is tough in the film, but it doesn’t blow Jane out into some super fighter or shooter. Her strength is very grounded and while she can handle herself, she isn’t afraid to take some help when needed. It’s a nice balance for a female character, especially in a western, as women usually get stuck playing either one end or the other of the badass/helpless spectrum. I do wish we got a bit more of Jane with her daughters & Bill, but the actors make those relationships alive even if the edit/script doesn’t. Noah Emmerich lies dying as Bill most of the film, but he kills it in the beats he gets in a couple of late flashbacks. Ewan McGregor is also delightfully evil as John Bishop and I really wish we got to see more of him. The structure of the movie wants you to not be too sure of him for too long, even though he’s clearly the big bad, and McGregor is having such a good time it’s a shame we didn’t just get to see more of Bishop being nasty.
Jane Got a Gun has some rough edges, but is still a lot of fun for fans of the western genre. The cast is great, the film moves and it really finds its sweet spot when it needs to. The final extended set-piece is tense and keeps things fresh and you will find yourself asking for even more time with these characters. Jane Got a Gun is worth a watch whether you’re a Western fan or not, it will work for most audiences.