Sunday, January 31, 2016

Jane Got a Gun

The new Western/Romance Jane Got a Gun takes place in the rough country of 1870's New Mexico, with flashbacks to pre-Civil War Missouri. Jane Got a Gun, directed by Gavin O'Connor, doesn't linger on the beauty of the landscape or have much to say about the triumph of the American Experience; it's small, dark film that's deliberately personal its concerns and better off for that choice. Jane (Natalie Portman, who also produced) is raising her daughter in near isolation when her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) returns home badly shot up. The shots were fired by the "Bishop Boys", an outlaw gang whose leader John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) has very specific issues with Jane and Bill that are revealed in flashbacks. Jane's only ally is Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton, who also gets a co-writing credit), a neighbor whose initial displeasure at Jane's visit also has a backstory that the film explores. With so many past connections to discover it no surprise that the main plot of Jane feels a little threadbare: a threat is made, defenses are mounted, the attack comes. What makes the film a little more than just a well-cast shoot-em-up is its unacknowledged villain: America. The unhappiness that Jane and Frost share runs deeper than the situation they find themselves in. It predates the Civil War and is a product of the hard choices required for survival. The characters in Jane are firmly within Western movie archetypes - the tough woman in hardscrabble conditions, the inarticulate gunslinger - but they also feel a good deal more emotionally true than the speechifying characters in The Hateful Eight. Frost reveals to Jane that he spent time as a prisoner in a Rebel Army camp. Samuel L. Jackson's character in Eight had been a prisoner too, and guess which character I believed more. Everyone in Jane is just trying to hang on, even the profiteering John Bishop. The climax of Jane Got a Gun is, of course, a gunfight. Jane, Frost, and the injured Bill try to hang on against Bishop's men, and O'Connor keeps the attackers mostly off camera. The effect is as though the house itself is attacking Jane, and the image of a rifle poking through a wall is as economical expression as I've ever seen of the American frontier as threat.

Jane Got a Gun had a famously troubled production history, and perhaps some of the choices that read as tonal were really the result of necessity. Natalie Portman acquits herself well though, and is actually more effective in the scenes where she's asked to show the most emotion. (Portman's frontier chic costumes are by Catherine George.) If Jane didn't spend quite so much time on flashbacks then Jane's sacrifices might have carried more emotional weight, but again it's hard to know just how much of that was an attempt at giving structure to a film that wasn't coming together. Finally Jane Got a Gun is a minor film in the canon of Revisionist Westerns, one too caught up with itself to get much past the familiar.

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