by Philip Price
Life is complicated. Even more so in the old west. Natalie Portman's passion project, “Jane Got A Gun,” wants to remind us of this and ultimately that what we perceive as good and bad aren't as easy to differentiate between as most would like to believe. What was even more complicated though, was the long and tumultuous road it took to get this project to the big screen. After several pre-production delays that included original director Lynne Ramsey exiting the project on the same day shooting was scheduled to begin it was difficult to see how the film might come out unscathed. Pair this with the exit of star Jude Law and a roster of other actors including Bradley Cooper coming in and out for the role that was finally filled by Ewan McGregor and you have what is sure to be nothing short of a downright catastrophe. Eventually though, director Gavin O'Connor took over the reins and enlisted the help of his “Warrior” star Joel Edgerton to what now, having seen the film, is a wholly serviceable and often times even compelling Western that hardly shows any of the scars it garnered along the way. From a story and script originally crafted by Brian Duffield it seems that once O'Connor was brought on board that he utilized both Edgerton (a writer and director himself) and “Warrior” screenwriter Anthony Tambakis to punch up the script and it is here where we find the first of many things to admire about the film. From the opening moments, set in dusty 1871 New Mexico, as Portman's titular Jane tells her daughter a bedtime story it is made clear the position of the three main characters in the story and where they fall into the plot while not making it clear where they might fall into one another's lives. This structuring of mystery around each of our main characters and their past and how they might intertwine with one another is what hooks the audience and while the first 20 or so minutes may seem to drag and ostensibly be vague for no other purpose than being vague the film hits its stride within the first half hour and from there briskly unravels a heartbreaking narrative of love, loss, and the will to do what it takes to keep on keepin' on.
Centered around Jane Hammond (Portman), the story tells of how this woman, once thought to have lost her fiancé, Dan Frost (Edgerton), to the war, has come to build a new life with new husband Bill "Ham" Hammond (Noah Emmerich). The catch is that Hammond once worked alongside a gang of outlaws known as the "Bishop Boys" under the guidance of Colin McCann (McGregor). It turns out the Bishop boys were exploiting the widowed women of the war by offering protective services for travel to a nearby town made to sound like a utopia. In reality, McCann and his gang were simply looking to take over this town and utilize the girls they schemed into coming along with them as prostitutes in order to turn a profit. It seems Jane was one of the unfortunate souls who fell for this trap, but along the way Hammond became attached to Jane and broke away from the gang with the hope of starting fresh with his new love. McCann doesn't look kindly on Hammond's decision sparking a war of sorts between the Bishop boys and Hammond that naturally finds its way back to Jane and Bill's front porch leaving Bill badly wounded and unable to move. With the impending arrival of McCann and an unknown number of his gang members Jane enlists the help of the fiancé she once thought dead. Of course, there is more to the story than what can be divulged here and it is in these nuances of haunted memories that there is a depth and meaning to the interaction between Dan and Jane that can't be discussed, but is conveyed delicately through the respective performances of Portman and Edgerton. The conflict evident on Portman's face as her character comes to the realization of her mistakes and shortcomings and how she must let such things go in order to allow her past to meet with her present is an arc I can understand wanting to play enough to endure all it took to make this story a reality.
While the script certainly gives the film a rather tight and brilliant pace with which it peels back the layers of the story, it is the characters that keep us invested and furthermore it is the performances that make this potentially generic Western one worth sticking around for. Maybe what is most telling about these characters though is the way they deal with these situations in which neither of them are privy to all the details of the other's story. Regardless of how they once pictured life, now knowing how things do indeed turn out has turned two optimistic and joyously in love people into hardened cynics that can barely stand to look at one another for fear of what thoughts might come rushing back. It is in this relationship that the film really flourishes. For the most part, knowing what she knows and taking her position in life based on this knowledge Jane is still a very confused soul. She has jumped at an opportunity to be rescued only to find she has to be rescued once again. She experiences unthinkable tragedy after unthinkable tragedy and that Hammond is there to catch her when she falls is all she knows. She convinces herself she's a different person, someone Dan wouldn't care to be with even if he were to return. Though confused and likely permanently shaken, these experiences also lend Jane a certain perspective on things. Whereas Dan comes to the table with a serviceable set of skills, Jane has an intelligence and intuition about her that is displayed through Portman's subtle performance. As Dan, Edgerton plays the guy with such grief and regret it is impossible not to label him as the most complex. He is tortured by what he saw himself becoming and what his life has actually turned out to be and the actor keeps that sorrow and misery as permanent fixtures on his character’s face. A key moment between Dan and a member of McCann's gang pushes the character forward while delivering a high amount of tension by allowing the stillness of the atmosphere to take over. This memorable scene helps to build the damaged relationship between Jane and Dan while at the same time moving the film along by setting up what we can expect from a rather magnificent final showdown.
While such scenes as the one just mentioned as well as the one that follows it give the film a real sense of purpose and weight. Still, there are certainly some detractors. First of these would be the use of flashbacks that are relied on too often. In a scene where we are finally given the details of Dan's journey the use of flashback feels particularly unnecessary as it would have been more impactful to simply allow Edgerton's performance to convey the pain and sadness clearly felt. Whereas the script at least allows these two characters to progress and displays the unraveling of the mysteries that inform who these characters are it hardly does the same with McGregor's character. As the only full-fledged bad guy in the whole thing there could have been a real opportunity for this Brit to dig into a villainous Western role as hinted at in one of the early scenes, but instead McCann is reduced to only a few moments on screen-most of which might as well have featured him actually twirling the mustache he so proudly sports. While the film itself is built around the revealing of the layers of its two leading characters it hangs its baddie out to dry. While I somewhat appreciate the decision to not harp on the single out and out archetype in the script, but rather to spend more time with the more engaging and complex heroes who may or may not be as heroic as we think it's necessary to give these heroes something to fight for and McGregor's McCann never feels like as menacing a threat as he should. Most depressing though is that the film feels the need to go and undo the tragedy it sets up by going back on itself in order to deliver a happier ending. The conclusion of the film would have been all the more affecting had they left things well enough alone and made McCann even more deceitful than we initially expected, but with what is actually delivered there is not as much poignancy to the final shot, but rather a feeling more of compromise: something neither Jane nor Dan would have ever done were making a film up to them.