Film Review: Jane Got A Gun (USA, 2016)

Set in the Wild West, Jane Got a Gun centres around Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman), her outlaw husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) and Jane’s ex-lover Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton).  Bill finds himself in a bit of trouble from an outlaw gang and their leader Colin (Ewan McGregor) wants him dead.  In a desperate effort to save her husband and keep her family together, Jane turns to Dan for help.  This reawakens long-buried memories in both Jane and Dan, and while they fight to keep Bill safe, they also acknowledge the circumstances that brought them all together.

Sounds like a truly engrossing film, no?  Plus, with the likes of Portman, McGregor, Edgerton and Emmerich in the main cast, this film had everything in it to become a great western for a new generation.  But Jane Got a Gun had been plagued with problems even in pre-production (Portman reportedly saying of the film, “This was the most challenging movie I’ve ever been a part of”), and perhaps, due to the stops and starts, change in directors (going from We Need to Talk about Kevin’s Lynne Ramsay to Warrior’s Gavin O’Connor, who had worked with the main cast before) and therefore change in vision, the film never feels like it’s going to let loose and become a truly absorbing story.

Because the cast do a pretty good job in this film.  Emmerich does not play a huge role here, but he holds a quiet presence as the man who has brought trouble to his little family.  It’s the same quality of work you may have seen from him in the 80s spy drama The Americans.  Emmerich’s turn as Bill Hammond shows us a character that may have chosen the outlaw’s life initially, but is a good person through and through. Portman as his wife in the title role of Jane also does a very good job as a woman who, having lost so much in the past, does anything it takes to keep her future, and the future of her family, intact.  You can tell this was a project she was passionate about (she also served as one of the producers), and that the integrity of the film be maintained, despite the many challenges the crew faced.  Jane herself is a wonderful character to have in the Western film genre, and it’s refreshing to see that a woman is the centre of this story.  

Joel Edgerton as Dan Frost plays his character quite well, too, though not as memorable as Portman’s Jane.  The role was originally meant for Michael Fassbender, and when he left the project, so too did former director Ramsay.  It’s not fair to say which of the two Dans would have played the character better.  After seeing Edgerton (who also wrote the screenplay) play Dan, seeing another character in that role is difficult, but there’s no denying that something was missing from the overall film and whether or not it was due to this cast change is debatable. Edgerton’s Dan, though, is a thoughtful, quiet man, and, like his ex Jane and her husband Bill, is no stranger to the “live and die by the gun” mentality.  Much of the film works in flashbacks, leading up to the “final showdown” (that all westerns need) and it’s in these flashback scenes that we get a sense of who Dan was to Jane.

Maybe it’s because of the flashback scenes that the film doesn’t work quite as well as it should.  It almost plays like two very different films, one where everyone is very introspective and another where the action comes into play.  Viewers may well be watching and wondering when the action starts to really take place, rather than revelling in the backstories, because there’s something about the pace of the film that doesn’t quite sit right.

This is not to say that Jane Got a Gun isn’t a good film.  It is, and once you learn more about the characters (Emmerich’s character especially) you do start to really care about them. The second half of the film is certainly the more compelling half, but it’s hard to discount the slower pace of the earlier scenes because they are so needed for the finale.  You know what Edgerton meant to do when writing the script in this way, but perhaps the execution didn’t work as well as it should have.  Viewers are rewarded, certainly, because the ending tied everything together well, but the film was let down overall by the earlier moments.

Jane Got a Gun won’t be a film many will be claiming as their favorite western, which is a shame, because the storyline is definitely intriguing, but it’s worth giving this movie a try.  The pacing is a bit choppy in parts, but the cast deliver sound performances.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)