JANE GOT A GUN is a straight forward modern western, and a pretty good one. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, or have a new twist on it, other than to star Natalie Portman (STAR WARS I, II, III), who also produced it and fought to bring it back to life after the original director famously left on the first day of production.
I can see why she cared about it so much. It’s a good role for her, one she must’ve done alot of preparation for. She’s a much more natural western heroine than I pictured. Jane Hammond lives in a little house on a remote patch of land with a young daughter (Maisie McMaster). One day her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich, WINDTALKERS), who everybody calls “Ham,” comes home dying of a bullet wound. She does exactly what all movie people do in that situation – give him a bottle of liquor, pull the slug out with tongs, and most importantly DROP THE SLUG INTO A METAL BOWL – then chews him out, puts on a hat and a coat and goes out to take care of business.
Okay, I’m making that sound a little more badass than it is, because Jane’s no-fuckin-around demeanor makes it seem that way. She’s not going to get revenge or nothing, she’s actually going to drop the kid off at a friend’s house and then go beg her drunk ex-boyfriend to protect her from the Bishop Boys, the guys who shot Ham and who he says are coming for him. And for her.
The ex is Dan Frost, played by Joel Edgerton (STAR WARS II, III) in another brilliant swirl of emotional turmoil sealed inside rocky masculine armor. Dan says he told her “last time” she wasn’t welcome at his home, talks to her like she’s some crazy stalker he’s been trying to get rid of. She’s like, fine, fuck it, but when she goes into town and gets attacked he pops up out of nowhere and they shoot a guy and all the sudden he’s deep in this shit.
I don’t actually know what the deal is with the title. I’m too rock ignorant to have even thought of the similarly titled Aerosmith song until someone pointed it out. I assume the gun is not a specific weapon, but Dan, the gunman she hired. Because Jane seems to have always had various guns.
Throughout the film there are flashbacks that fill in piece by piece what the history of all this is – what the Bishop Boys have against Jane, more importantly what she has against them, how she ended up with Ham instead of this guy Dan, etc. I was skeptical of the time jumps at first, because some are a little awkward, but they end up working dramatically when it all comes together.
Dan has good reason to be heartbroken. He went off to war (don’t worry, he fought for the north) but by the time he got back it had been so long that Jane had thought he was dead and moved on with her life and shit had happened. Neither fully understand the other’s perspective, both feel betrayed, but duh, there’s still something there threatening to be rekindled if they, say, go through some danger together. So there’s plenty of tension as Ham has to lay helplessly in bed not saying a word as this guy with such a long history with his wife both protects and intimidates him.
Mostly-off-screen lead villain John Bishop is played by Ewan McGregor (STAR WARS I, II, III) with bowler hat, mustache and makeup that at times looks like a silent film character. And his right hand man is played by Ahmed Best, Jar Jar Binks himself. No, that’s not true, but it would be pretty cool if they went all out in making this a prequels reunion. Like, Liam Neeson could be a bartender, and Watto appears briefly as the town blacksmith, etc.
Bishop pretends to believe everybody believes he’s an upstanding citizen while his little brother (I thought, but I guess he has a different last name) Vic (Boyd Holbrook, LOGAN) does the crazy-eyes-loose-cannon stuff, like an old west meth head or TEXAS CHAIN SAW family member. Through badass montages, Dan shows Jane how to prepare her home for all out war until eventually the night lights up with galaxies of muzzle flashes and the walls start looking like a colander.
Dissecting the narrative it’s hard to consider this a feminist western like you might expect it to be. It does show that men can be assholes who force women into prostitution and treat them as property. But also it shows that when Jane makes a choice to find a life for herself instead of waiting for a man it leads to disaster and she has to be rescued by a man and then when that man gets into trouble she has to be rescued by the man she was initially waiting for. You will find lots of drama there but not necessarily empowerment.
On the other hand Jane is an unusually strong female character for a western, one who is determined and impressive but without mimicking traditionally masculine traits or hiding emotions or vulnerability. She seems very experienced in nursing her injured husband and protecting her child. She’s good with a rifle, though not a pistol. She can be physically overpowered and still prove her toughness. She’s humble enough to defer to Dan’s war expertise and to follow his instructions, but fiercely defends Ham’s honor and her own life decisions when criticized. She’s able to cry and also to make you think “wow, she has balls.” She’s got dimension.
The director who left was Lynne Ramsay, who normally writes her own stuff, but loved the script by Brian Duffield (INSURGENT, THE BABYSITTER) enough to develop and cast the movie and decide to leave when it was clear the producer wasn’t gonna let her make it the way she wanted to. (Amazingly the producer often cited is not either of the Weinsteins, but Scott Steindorff [TURISTAS]).
It seemed like career suicide for Ramsay at the time, but then she seemed to come out okay in the lawsuits and went off and made YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE to great acclaim. I only know that one and WE REALLY NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN YOU GUYS, haven’t seen the always-highly-recommended RATCATCHER or MORVERN CALLAR, but I’ve seen enough of her cryptic style to assume she wasn’t planning anything normal like this. I imagine it would’ve been more stylistically adventurous and have a depressing ending (she reportedly was fighting against a producer-imposed “happy ending,” which I think is what we got here).
She originally had Edgerton in the Bishop role and Michael Fassbender as Dan. Edgerton switched when Fassbender had to leave for DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, and then Jude Law was Bishop, but only because he wanted to work with Ramsay. So after she left, so did he, along with cinematographer Darius Khondji (SE7EN), replaced by Mandy Walker (HIDDEN FIGURES). Edgerton’s WARRIOR director Gavin O’Connor took over immediately, and Edgerton rewrote the script with WARRIOR’s Anthony Tambakis.
I like that Edgerton sort of made it into his thing. I noticed his director brother Nash even did stunts for it. Joel is one of my favorite actors to emerge in recent years, and I think he’s still underrated after such a transformative role in LOVING and doing the directing/playing a weirdo thing in THE GIFT. I guess he’d have to fight Batman or somebody to get more credit. Or do an Uncle Owen solo movie.
I feel like Portman deserves credit for trying to use her clout to champion interesting female directors, even though it keeps not working out on her projects. She apparently had a falling out with Marvel after their creative differences with original THOR: THE DARK WORLD director Patty Jenkins. But maybe these initial stalled movie experiences helped fuel the subsequent Portman-less successes of Jenkins and Ramsay.
Despite its kneejerk dismissal as bland studio product, I think both Portman and Edgerton got a little bit of their voices in there, and to me the combination of the two of them is enough to make JANE GOT A GUN worthwhile.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.