Movie Review: ‘JANE GOT A GUN’ Can’t Shoot Straight But Makes Some Impact

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

JANE GOT A GUN | 98 min | R
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Cast: Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton and Ewan McGregor

Westerns are something of an anomaly when it comes to the movie genre. With genres like horror or action, there is a clear motive as to why we will see it; we either want to have the adrenaline rush of fear or watch violence up close, all within a safe environment. Westerns, however, can evoke different motives as to why they are wanted.

Film theorist Will Wright said in his book “Sixguns and Society” that there are four different types of narrative that the western will use to reach its audience: classical (the good guy saves the day), vengeance (protagonist goes after villains in retaliation), transitional (the main characters are at an impasse within their roles in society), and professional (protagonist gets paid, but then motive grows into something moral).

Lately though, Hollywood has gone away from these types of straight plotlines, using something of a modernity with a Western setting, something of a neo-Western. For example, THE HATEFUL EIGHT is essentially RESERVOIR DOGS set in post-Civil War America, complete with a dialogue-heavy narrative not predominant in the genre.

As the latest entry to the genre, JANE GOT A GUN, looks to modernize the Western by having its lead be a strong-willed, independent woman instead of the normal cowboy motif. While the execution is shaky to say the least, it does satisfy the emotions that are exuded from viewing a Western. There is survival with the undercurrent of vengeance, a hired hand that becomes motivated by something more, but a modern transition infused into these narratives.

Jane (Natalie Portman) finds her man Bill (Noah Emmerich) at their doorstep after he’s been shot multiple times by The Bishop Boys. He warns her of their impending arrival, so she sets out to “get a gun”, which is in the form of Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton); Dan also happens to be her ex-fiancee. As reluctant as he is to help Jane, Dan succumbs to his instincts to protect her under the guise of getting paid.

Meanwhile, after Dan kills one of their men, John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) decides it’s time to go finish the job they started shooting Bill, who is a former outlaw that rode with The Bishop Boys. As the villainous scoundrels ride toward Jane’s homestead, her and Dan try to fortify their chances of survival. With her current love paralyzed and slowly dying, and her former love at her employ, Jane knows that her past and present must convene to protect her future.

Joel Edgerton and Natalie Portman in JANE GOT A GUN. Photo courtesy The Weinstein Company.

Joel Edgerton and Natalie Portman in JANE GOT A GUN. Photo courtesy The Weinstein Company.

It’s no secret that JANE GOT A GUN has gone through its own tribulations before even getting released. It went through several directors mid-shoot before landing on Gavin O’Connor, who directed the highly-underrated WARRIOR. Because all of these different fingerprints touched the movie, it’s bound to be without uniformity. Portman’s acting goes from fantastic to wooden at the drop of a hat, McGregor’s villain is more like a caricature, and the film doesn’t transition through time very well.

Also, a lot of Westerns use the journey from point A to point B to help build exposition and backstory. Here, they decided to tell of Jane and Dan’s story via flashbacks that mirror memories, which are very hit-or-miss (the hot air balloon memory will haunt me forever). Furthermore, the movie can’t really decide on whether Jane or Dan is the main protagonist, causing confusion with how to receive Jane’s story.

But, while the messes are bound to happen when a movie changes hands, it is still very entertaining. There are a lot of great shots, and the natural lighting gives the movie a darkness needed to envelop the narrative. While Portman is more good than bad, Edgerton is solid as both the hired gun and jilted ex, bringing a subtle anger to the chemistry between Dan and Jane.

The title JANE GOT A GUN doesn’t really mean that Jane goes on a killing spree. It’s that Jane’s journey revolves around the theme of protection vs. self-sufficiency. She is constantly looking for a protection that masks the emptiness gained at the loss of Dan, who she assumed died in the war, and it leads to her in dangerous situations. In the end, the gun is finally placed in Jane’s hands, as well as her own hands.

In the Western genre, JANE GOT A GUN might not be a classic but it serves its purpose. It does delineate from the normal Western narrative to create something different, and showcases the transition of waifish archetype of the Western woman to someone that protects her own. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a different direction that more Westerns may be willing to go.

JANE GOT A GUN is now playing in theaters.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.