JANE GOT A GUN took a torturous route through production and distribution before finally arriving on screens, without benefit of a press screening, in the doldrums of the film release cycle. That would be the end of January, traditionally the time when studios disburse the films in which they have the least faith. And JANE certainly has its problems. Perhaps it was the musical chairs actors played by actors and roles. Perhaps it was the change of directors a week into production. Perhaps it was too many writers tweaking when a complete overhaul was required. Perhaps there is a case study here, and a fascinating book about where it all went wrong. For now, though, all we have is a derivative feminist western with more holes in its plot than there are in Jane’s homestead after the climactic shootout.
No, I’m not giving anything away. The film start Jane’s husband, Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) arriving at said remote New Mexico homestead pumped full of bullets and murmuring about Bishop coming. On hearing this, Jane (Natalie Portman) stops pulling the slugs out of Bill, puts on her hat, her coat, her gloves, and loads her eponymous gun. Stopping only to drop off her daughter with a neighbor for safekeeping, she heads for town, where she stocks up on munitions, and then over to Dan Frost’s place. Dan (Joel Edgerton) is her former fiancé who has taken up residence nearby where he wallows in self-pity, dust, and alcohol. Her request for help does not go well, but this being a mythic sort of tale of the old west, of course he comes around, literally and figuratively.
How these people got to where they are is revealed bit by bit in flashback, as an image sets them off into a moment of reverie. We learn why Jane and Dan didn’t work out. We learn by Bishop is not dropping by for tea. It’s all handled with a high degree of visual aplomb, from the way the light dances in a field of wheat as young lovers stroll through it, to the arresting close-up of a gun barrel that Bill can barely bring into focus as he lies on his bed of pain. From the opening shots of Jane telling a bedtime story via hand-shadows to her daughter, to the way the rippled glass tricks the eye looking through it, nothing is quite what it seems. It’s a self-consciously artsy effect in a film that is languid rather than crisply suspenseful or emotionally tense. Portman, Edgerton, McGregor, and Emmerich are all richly laconic in their approach, brightened only slightly by McGregor’s slicked back self-satisfied sense of deviltry, but the film as a whole is irksomely plodding. The pace and tone never vary from a moment kneading dough rife with exquisite chiaroscuro, to Jane heroically galloping across the vastness of the mesas, a silhouette against the purple sunset, to the dirt and grime of the nearest town.
But then there are those holes, which would spoil the plot, and the moments of just plain silliness, which find a character loudly cocking a shotgun when attempting to sneak around in a silent house. And not being heard by the person being stalked.
JANE GOT A GUN tries to evoke Leone (check the duster Jane sports) and Ford (check the mesas that surround her), but without the intensity of the former, or the adventure of the latter. What’s left is a stereopticon of a post-modern morality tale that can’t overcome its own inertia.