Whereas the Western was once a prominent go-to genre for movie studios from the 1920s through the 1970s, it has fallen out of favor through saturation and overuse, so that now we are lucky to get two, maybe three Western films in theaters over the course of a year. And unfortunately “Jane Got a Gun,” released in theaters now with zero fanfare or marketing from The Weinstein Company, will not be the movie to reverse this trend of get people excited about this genre again. An interesting idea of a story presented in a muddled non-linear fashion within the confines of an ultimately weightless movie, this is the kind of movie that makes for an okay watch on a rainy Tuesday night – simply a way to pass the time with some fine actors doing decent work in a film that just never comes together into something memorable.
Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman) lives with her daughter on a secluded piece of land somewhere in New Mexico, and one day her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) comes home with bullet wounds all over his back. Jane tries her best to fix him up but he’s bed ridden, paralyzed from the waist down, and for some reason his vision is all blurry (may have been from the booze he was constantly drinking to numb the pain). He also has bad news, telling her that the Bishop Gang was coming for them. This causes Jane to panic a bit, so she hands off her young daughter to a friend for safe keeping, and then goes to her former lover Dan (Joel Edgerton) asking for his help as a gunslinger. He refuses at first, being drunk and bitter, but then acquiesces and agrees to help, while still being drunk and bitter.
The rest of “Jane Got a Gun” goes back and forth between Jane and Dan preparing and waiting for the Bishop Gang to show up, and the whole backstory that got them to this moment – how Jane and Dan were a couple, why they became separated, how Jane met the Bishop Gang as well as Bill, why the Bishop Gang would even be looking for Jane and Bill to begin with, it is all dispersed through the movie’s run time, making us go back and forth in order to see the entire picture. The problem with this jumbled up telling of the events of this story is that it doesn’t offer any additional suspense nor insight into any of the characters. We first find out that Dan doesn’t like Jane, and then later we find out why, though it is not a surprise. We also hear about how the Bishop Gang is coming for Jane and Bill, but we don’t learn why for a while, and when we do get that “why,” it is as basic as it gets. It really feels like this story would have been greatly improved by just telling the whole thing in a linear fashion, and that way we would actually get a sense of an epic story, taking place over a period of a number of years, with characters who change and grow before our eyes. It would have helped out the movie quite a bit if we actually saw Bill be a scoundrel and then change and try to be a good person, instead of just being told this is what happened.
Likewise, telling this story in a linear fashion from beginning to end instead of chopping up the majority of the story and treating it as flashback material would have done wonders for the characterization of Jane. We could have seen her grow and change into a self sufficient and tough frontier woman, but instead she’s tough from the very beginning and this does not change at all. Hell, you would think that the most basic thing they could have done was set up a story in which Jane Hammond is forced to defend her family though violence and has to learn how to use a weapon and toughen up a bit; instead, we do get a scene of Dan trying to show Jane how to improve her aim with a revolver, but then she puts it down and picks up a rifle and immediately shows that she can use it very proficiently, explaining to Dan that Bill had already taught her how to use the rifle for hunting purposes. So there goes THAT obvious bit of character development, she doesn’t need to be shown how to use a gun because she already knows how. And on top of that, she uses a revolver before and after this scene effectively, so what’s the point of it anyway?
It is apparent that there is a good story buried somewhere in this thing, and it yearns to break free, but it got smothered by Western movie clichés, underdeveloped characters and a real lack of urgency or drive from the narrative. Much time is spent merely waiting for the Bishop Gang to show up, and when they finally do, the ensuing shoot out is very rote and pedestrian, a “been there, done that” siege sequence that is much less thrilling than it should have been. Hell, they even made a big deal about a nail bomb booby trap set up by Dan, and when they finally get to use it, we only see it through the upstairs window of Jane’s house – easily the biggest and most daring moment in the movie, and it is obscured by a limited view, and also by a lack of desire to actually show us the damage this caused.
“Jane Got a Gun” could have easily been one of two movies – either the story of a young woman, frail and fraught with anxiety over protecting her family, who learns how to defend herself, or the story of an atypically strong woman, at least for this genre, who is able bodied and willing to throw down against the men and hold her own against all odds. But instead it falls in the middle somewhere, as the story of a strong woman who nevertheless still needs the help of a man to keep her safe at every turn, and there is really nothing satisfying about this. No one grows or changes from the beginning of the movie to the end of it, and it says nothing profound or interesting about gender roles in 1800s America. It is just a boring Western, paint by numbers, and wholly forgettable. Sadly, a wasted opportunity for something which could have been great.