Jane Got a Gun and all the images you see in this review are owned by The Weinstein Company
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
January began with Oscar overflow from 2015, and it plans to end with… well not Oscar bait, but something MUCH classier looking than the usual January fare. We’ve got Academy Award winner Natalie Portman producing this western about a woman making a stand against those who wish to destroy her. Hell, take off the cowboy hats and replace the pistols with legal briefs and you basically have Erin Brockovich! Still, if they expected this movie to be any good, they wouldn’t have released it in January. Then again, we got The Boy in January, and that one turned out to be pretty great. Could it be that we have ANOTHER January success story on our hands? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins at a small house out in the country which is the homestead of Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman) and her young daughter. Her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) is arriving home after… doing cowboy things, but is in pretty bad shape as he had a run in with the Bishop Boys gang. He managed to get away by the skin of his teeth, but the Bishops’ aren’t about to let him escape after what he and Jane had done to them in the past. It won’t take them too long to find their house, and with Bill out of commission Jane must prepare for what happens next. He drops off their daughter at a friend’s house before seeking out Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) who was her fiancée at one point, but all that changed some time ago in a backstory that we are drip fed throughout the movie. The sad bastard has been drinking himself to death since finding out that Jane had married someone else, but he eventually agrees to help her fend off the bad guys for some money, though it’s clearly an attempt by him to get back in her good graces. Armed with a couple of guns, some dynamite, and a few tricks that Dan picked up in the Civil War, the two of them prepare for the attack by the Bishop Gang led by John Bishop himself (Ewan McGregor). Not only that, but they finally have a chance to discuss what had happened between them all those years ago which could lead to some unexpected revelations for the both of them. Oh, and Bill’s hanging around there somewhere in the back; slowly dying from his multiple gunshot wounds. Will they be able to put aside their differences long enough to stay alive, or will this uneasy love triangle be the death of them long before the Bishops get there? Will there be very reasonable explanations for Jane’s actions that Dan should have PROBABLY guessed about instead of sulking for the last few years? Did anyone manage to sit through this entire movie without passing out from boredom?
The problem with this movie is that it has all the trappings of a well-made western but with none of the heart or substance. There is nothing here to differentiate it from any other western you’ve ever seen so it feels less like an original film and more like a greatest hits of western clichés only it’s the cover versions and not the originals. It’s the blandest movie I’ve seen in a while simply because of how predictable it is, how competent yet uninspired the cinematography is, and just how stagey everything feels. You don’t buy this as a real story or a series of events worth investing in. It’s so spot on with its recreation of a typical western that it COULD have been a satire if they punched up the dialogue with some good jokes, but it takes itself so god damn seriously that you’d be laughing at it if you weren’t already falling asleep.
Getting past the carbon-copy trappings, the movie is very much a siege film which brings to mind films such as Seven Samurai and frankly this movie fails to recognize why movies like that work so well (I’m aware Magnificent Seven would be a better comparison since they’re both westerns, but I’ve never seen it). What do you need for a siege movie to work? It’s not all that complicated really. If you populate your movies with compelling characters that can’t function when in close quarters with each other, you basically have enough to carry the movie between attacks from the enemy. This movie falls flat on its face on that front because it’s not only a cliché ridden mess, but they also make it one of those movies where it’s ALL about what happened in the past. There’s very little development here outside of characters having revelations due to finding out what was going on when they weren’t around, but since the characters are such archetypal western stereotypes, it carries no weight because we already knew everything we needed to know about these characters within the first fifteen minutes. Bill is the outlaw who swept Jane away after Dan went off to war and never came back. There’s a kid who died and Bill’s former associates are out to find him. That pretty much takes an HOUR to flashback through even though the characters pretty much say all that very early on.
I guess the acting is fine, but to what end? When you’re characters have no personality that wasn’t ripped out of a John Wayne role or a John Ford script, the acting can only do so much to make these characters interesting and relatable. Natalie Portman has the strong woman toughened up by tragedy shtick down, but then that’s all we know about her character. She had a tragedy, has found a way to move forward, but now her past is coming back to haunt her. That’s not a character; that’s the outline of script. She loves her daughter. Fine, but the daughter is such a small part of this movie that it doesn’t carry any weight beyond what the movie EXPECTS you to feel about a mother daughter relationship. Hell, at least The Revenant spent the first fifteen minutes with DiCaprio’s son before tossing him out of the movie. Joel Edgerton is the only character who gets some decent screen time with Portman (her husband is bedridden and doesn’t talk all that much) but he’s just as big of a cliché as everyone else here. He’s drunk all the time because Jane broke his heart and yet it’s the form of alcoholism that doesn’t affect your reflexes, physical capabilities, or rugged good looks. That’ really all he’s got going on. He just sulks about Jane and… I guess farms or something when he’s not sulking.
Oh, but once John Bishop’s gang gets to the house and battle begins, the movie picks up, right? Well sort of, but the intensity of the battle is somewhat diminished by the use of shaky cam close-ups which is the death nail for almost every modern day action film. I get that the fight is supposed to be chaotic and that no one in the house has a clear idea of what’s going on, but they keep it going for SO long that it needed SOMETHING to mix it up to keep it from getting stale. There are some highlights there including an elaborate booby-trap that does massive damage, but it goes on too long and lacks a sense of stylistic flair to distinguish it from pretty much every other gunfight in a western. Clichés are the running theme here, even in the action scenes.
The ending might be the worst part though. I won’t spoil it, but the ending is LUDICEROUSLY happy; so much so that rainbows should have been shooting out of Natalie Portman’s ass as she was riding away into the sunset on a unicorn. The thing is that I love happy endings, but this one did not feel earned in the least. Natalie Portman is basically freed from making any tough decisions that may or may not end well, and instead is handed everything on a silver platter once the gunfight is over. It doesn’t feel like she’s grown because of this experience and instead won the lottery out of nowhere. Not only that, but the ending being THIS easily handed to her (and unequivocally portrayed in the most positive light imaginable) completely fails one of the characters in this who actually DID lose something out of all of this and yet never has a moment to reflect or react to what was lost. The fact that this character isn’t given a chance to mourn just goes to show how tertiary and pointless their existence in this story line is.
So is there anything good in this? Well the thing is that nothing is outright BAD except maybe the handling of the characters, but nothing is really that GOOD either. Cinematography is decent if uninspired. The action brings the movie up a bit, but is not shot very well. Everyone does a fine job in their roles, but the roles give them nothing to work with. The only part of this movie that I genuinely enjoyed was Ewan McGregor’s turn as the big bad in here. Sure it’s another big cliché as he’s the slick black hat, but he’s having more fun in here than anyone else. The script for this movie was on the 2011 Black List which is a yearly compilation of the best screenplays that did not get picked up for a movie. I don’t know much about this survey, but this definitely seems like something I would expect to be on that list. It has a solid foundation and the execution isn’t sloppy, but when you get to the nitty gritty, there’s just nothing there. I can see why some people were excited about this script, but can also see why a studio didn’t pick up it. Despite its second chance at life, this script was just not ready, and what we got as a result is a bland and lifeless slog that might have some nice elements but no reason to exist. There’s nothing that is unique or interesting about this story or its characters, so there’s really no reason to go out and watch it. Just let this one fade away into the annals of time so that it can find it’s true place in the world; either forever banished to Netflix or trapped for all eternity on the $7.50 rack at Walmart.
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