Natalie Portman does her best to break down the gender boundaries of the Western in this one-last-stand take on the genre, but stodgy pacing and an abundance of clichés prove too much for the gender bending to overcome.
She’s the titular Jane, a mother and wife on the run from the notorious Billy brothers’ gang, hiding out in New Mexico with her family. When her husband is left wounded with the gang on the way, she’s left to round up the only help she can find to defend her home: namely her former fiancé, none too happy to be helping the man who stole his woman.
It’s a pretty barebones plot, as the pair shore up the house’s defences and await the inevitable final act attack. It’s fleshed out through ample flashbacks, detailing the tragic chain of events that brought Jane from a happy engagement in Missouri to a bitter last stand in New Mexico, filling in the gaps in mostly predictable ways. You can see the script machinery cranking into action each time, as a pointed comment about a given relationship immediately prompts a flashback to provide the relevant emotional weight, before we dutifully shift back to the present until the next time some extra context is needed.
Natalie Portman offers some fine feist for the title role, but her Jane is never fleshed out much beyond the trauma she endures. Joel Edgerton is more interesting as the former fiancé caught between love and resentment, turned to drink to settle his shattered nerves. Every now and then Ewan McGregor rears his head as the sneering chief crook, sporting a moustache and soul patch combo so transparently evil you can see him fighting to resist twirling it every second he’s on screen.
With necessities of the plot dictating that most of the action be held back to final fifteen minutes, large stretches of Jane Got a Gun seem to fairly crawl along, all moody looks and pointed silences with nothing much to contribute. It doesn’t help that when the film does break out of its sullen mood, it doesn’t find much new to add to the genre. An early sequence when Jane rides into the local prosaically named town, Lullaby, plays like a checklist of Western clichés, complete with a long hold on a man busily constructing wooden coffins.
More frustratingly, the film is hardly revolutionary when it comes to gender either, despite the potent promise of the title. The whole plot is built around the supposedly resilient Jane immediately turning to the men in her life for help, and the traumatic backstory naturally includes the requisite rape sequence. Much is made of her motherhood, but little of it is seen on screen – we’re left to trust that she loves her children because she keeps saying she does, and that will just have to do.
Jane Got a Gun isn’t an out-and-out failure. The showdown in the finale is tense and well-shot, especially given some clear budgetary restrictions, and Portman and Edgerton make a fine central pairing. But there’s something lacking in its lethargic approach, a conservatism that’s crying out for some revolutionary fire. Jane may have gotten a gun, but I wish she’d have found something a bit more interesting to do with it.
Words by Dominic Preston