For many people, the phrase ‘Hollywood blacklist’ refers to the period during the mid 19th century when many filmmakers and actors with Communist sympathies (and many without) were cast out from the cinematic community and denied work. In more modern times, however, the black list has become the term to describe a set of scripts that have much promise but for some reason have yet to be made in to feature films. Originally written by Brian Duffield, Jane Got A Gun was featured on the 2011 black list, and due to a long and complicated production history including the casting and dropping out of stars such as Michael Fassbender, Jude Law and Bradley Cooper, it has taken until 2016 for the film to finally hit theatres. Would it be worth the wait?
Jane Got A Gun tells the story of Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman), a housewife living in the Wild West who is forced in to a gun strapped battle for survival after her outlaw husband (played by Noah Emmerich) is hunted down by John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) and his gang the Bishop Boys. Needing help to protect her injured husband and her home, Jane enlists the services of an old flame, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), and the majority of the narrative is made up of a mixture of context revealing flashbacks combined with machinations that lead up to a stereotypical ‘shoot ’em up’ final confrontation between all involved. What I wanted from Jane Got A Gun was an Aliens type narrative set in the Wild West featuring a kick ass female protagonist sticking it to her enemies, but what I actually got was a half hearted handful of action set pieces movie that preferred to play on underdeveloped romantic tropes rather than revelling in it’s gritty and potentially brutal backdrop. The title of the picture is Jane Got A Gun, but in all honesty it should be Jane Got A Gun And Gave It To A Male Character Who Then Attempts To Protect Her. The entire picture just seems to fall a little flat, executing cliched Western tropes and themes with very little innovation, and using very unimaginative editing techniques like flashback fades and voice overs to reveal a pedestrian story instead of thinking of more interesting ways to provide the audience with some context. I don’t mind at all if a Western takes its time, a sloping drawl of a narrative, when executed well and paid off in the end, is a trademark of great Westerns (see Bone Tomahawk for a recent triumph), and perhaps the film’s biggest disappointment is that the final third in no way makes up for the rather tedious hour of set up that the audience has to endure. As with most films in the genre, the aesthetic is harsh yet hypnotic, and the picture can be chalked up as yet another reminder of just how hellish it must have been to live in and be a part of the American frontier. Besides from it’s solid cinematography and overall look, though, you would have to say that Jane Got A Gun misses out on a great opportunity to tell a different kind of Wild West story with a potentially interesting protagonist and from an unconventional angle.
In the lead role of Jane, Natalie Portman puts in a solid enough performance as a woman who is doing the best she can with the tools that she has. Though the character is not quite as strong and commanding as the posters and tag lines would have you believe, it is nonetheless enjoyable to have a female be at the forefront of a Western action drama, even if she does still have to operate within the narrative confinement of a cliched love triangle. As Dan Frost, Joel Edgerton provides the kind of stoicism that it usually associated with a strong, silent hero type in Western cinema, as does Noah Emmerich as husband Bill, even though his performance is mostly limited to scenes of bedridden injury grimacing. In contrast to these perfectly serviceable performances, Ewan McGregor as key antagonist John Bishop feels very much like a parody of what a convincing villain should be. With a suspect accent and lacking a single shred of menace, one could argue that McGregor is at fault for the film’s flat climax thanks to his poor characterisation and seemingly disconnected performance when compared to the rest of the cast. In all, a really mixed bag acting wise that did nothing to help the already pedestrian narrative.
Overall, Jane Got A Gun is a film that I will not be returning to any time soon. The film doesn’t give us an endearing enough protagonist and settles for presenting paint by numbers villains that could have been picked out of any saloon in any middling Western in the last twenty years. What had the potential to be a great feminist action romp fell in to too many boring conventions that kept it in the unremarkable category. I can see why the film spent so long on the black list, what sounded so intriguing a premise on the page looks like it has had an extremely difficult transition to the big screen. You want to see a strong female character making her way in the Wild West? Allow me to point you in the direction of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman!