Any review of “Jane Got A Gun” is legally obligated to first mention the film’s legendarily torturous production history, which involved a revolving door of cast members, cinematographers, writers, directors, catering managers, people coming and going, being hired and fired, dropping out when conflicts arose or creative differences occurred, none more dramatically than the original director Lynne Ramsey saying vaya con dios just a day into filming which prompted Gavin O’Connor to be tabbed as a replacement which prompted Jude Law to walk because he wanted to work with Ramsey. The single constant to which anyone could point throughout this long, fluctuating slog to complete “Jane Got A Gun” and then get it to the big screen after distribution inevitably went awry and pushed back the release date by nearly two years was the film’s never-wavering leading lady……Natalie Portman.
Portman is Jane of the title, seen in a whimsical opening sequence with her daughter that has its whimsy quickly shattered when her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) rides home with a few bullets planted in his back, telling Jane that the Bishop Boys, the obligatory baddies, overseen by John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) are coming. Jane evacuates her daughter, but then returns to her husband, with an ex-lover Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) in tow. Why Dan joins up and why Jane knows him is not immediately clear, and the film, for a moment, seems refreshingly determined not to let the mystery be so much as let the mystery naturally play itself out, to make us live entirely in the present, to parse out all the necessary information in elliptical lines and little looks and behavioral tics, to not simply spell everything out and instead let it settle over us as the movie patiently trots ahead.
That’s not what happens. No, instead there are flashbacks mingled with the present day story that fill in all the necessary blanks and strike a surface-level romanticized tone that feels entirely at odds with the present day material. This is not, mind you, a purposeful juxtaposition but a bunch of incongruous add-ons that seem assigned by someone to ensure no viewer gets left behind for any more than a few seconds. You wonder if perhaps Ramsey sought more ellipsis and someone thought that wouldn't do. Who knows?
The conflict, of course, between Jane and Bill and Dan Frost & the dastardly Bishop Boys is resolved, as it must be, in requisite Western fashion with our overmatched heroes coming together in their time of need and counting on resolve over resources to save the day. It’s classic western fare, sure enough, that never really gets any kind of artistic jolt in the pants aside from the performance of McGregor who, for playing a stock character, still infuses it with a delectable charisma makes you understand why he could lure good people into webs of bad, bad things.
You keep waiting for “Jane Got A Gun” to truly plant its revisionist flag, to transform Jane Hammond into a modern day approximation of “Once Upon A Time In The West’s” Jill McBain, except where she takes up arms and defends her own place, all on her lonesome, the genre orthodoxy of the unlikely hero finding gumption in the nick of time. She finds gumption, yes, but not as much as she should, finding more of it in concert with Dan. And this mirror’s Portman’s performance, one which never kicks it up to another level of impassioned grit, content simply to blend into the ensemble. She held steady through the lumbering production and it’s her character’s name in the title. It should be her movie. It isn’t. It’s “Jane Got A Gun” feels like “Dan and Jane and Bill Got Guns.” That ain’t right.