Gavin O’Connor directs Jane Got a Gun, a 2016 western based on a screenplay by Brian Duffield, Joel Edgerton, and Anthony Tambakis. While the Mandy Walker’s painterly cinematography is certainly lovely, the film lacks inherent spark and doesn’t have a whole lot to say. Without a strong point-of-view to cling to, it tends to drift.
There may be a perfectly good explanation for how listless Jane Got a Gun feels. Scottish director Lynne Ramsay was originally on tap to steer the ship, but she left a few days into shooting. Lead actors were also rotated in and out of key roles, plus cinematographer Darius Khondji was replaced by Walker and the script was rewritten.
Natalie Portman stars as Jane Hammond, a frontierswoman living with her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) and their young daughter. One day, Bill returns home plugged full of holes. She takes care of him and learns that the notorious Bishop Boys gang is coming to finish the job. John Bishop (Ewan McGregor), the leader of the crew, has taken a particular interest in vengeance.
Jane seeks help from an ex-lover named Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) and things get more complicated than a Spanish soap opera. There are still feelings lurking below the surface, as Dan was ditched by Jane after the Civil War thanks to what seems to be a misunderstanding. She married Bill because he protected her, but now she requires the upright security of her first love.
Jane Got a Gun may feature Portman in a starring role, but she isn’t given much to do in this world of disparaged menfolk. The film weaves its tale with a series of flashbacks and bowls around to different perspectives, with Dan’s backstory informing the audience of how stoutly he searched for Jane after the War and Bill’s tale exploring how he rescued her from sure anguish at the hands of the Bishops.
The audience doesn’t get to know Jane apart from how she relates to the menfolk. She always carries a six-shooter, but she’s a terrible shot. The movie fiddles with the old Unforgiven trope by proving she can whack down the target with a long gun, though, so it’s all good. But when the bullets really start flying, she’s (mostly) the damsel in distress.
Because Jane Got a Gun can’t commit to its protagonist, it sifts through the sand of nothing. This makes it a beautiful collection of images, but there’s no connective tissue or fire. The climax even takes place at night, eliminating the prospect of red in the dirt and shells in the air. As such, Walker’s charming lensing is mostly window-dressing.
And the gorgeous imagery never hides the fact that the audience is watching a Movie, with all sorts of shots through grimy windows and across the expansive Hammond yard piling up the grand aesthetic. The camera finds the point-of-view of a tattoo-faced enemy and the shot-up Bill, with a blurry lens trying to establish just who in the sweet hell his in-the-lurch wife collected for their assistance.
While it would’ve been nice for Jane Got a Gun to muster the pulpy gusto by way of Burt Kennedy’s Hannie Caulder, it doesn’t really have to do anything but tell its own story – and tell it well. The lack of meat is frustrating given the potential for a truly vehement tale of female-driven affliction, but the bullets are stuffed with convention.
Jane Got a Gun is adequate and rather pretty, but it sinks from memory as soon as the credits roll. While this ideological version of the Wild West lacks sting with its hot air balloon rides, the dearth of character and energy is the biggest problem. Jane may get her gunman, but O’Connor’s movie needs more than hot lead to succeed.