Jane Got A Gun (***1/2): Hell’s coming with me

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Jane Got A Gun – 2016

Director Gavin O’Connor
Screenplay Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis, Joel Edgerton
Starring Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Boyd Holbrook, Rodrigo Santoro, Noah Emmerich

Sometimes things don’t turn out like you planned. At one point you can have a hot script as yet unproduced. Then you snag an Oscar winning actress and a renowned female director. Then you get Michael Fassbender and Jude Law. Then Jude Law is replaced by Bradley Cooper. Somehow out of that you get Joel Edgerton and Ewan McGregor and a new director in Gavin O’Connor. Adding to this we get Tambakis and Edgerton of O’Connor’s beautiful Warrior to rewrite parts of the script. Then they say this means the film is in trouble. I don’t understand how one comes to this conclusion in these trades. It seems like the film wins in every trade except possibly Cooper for McGregor. I will call that one a draw. Overall, at this point, the only drawback is that they get the name from an Aerosmith song that has nothing to do with old west justice.

Prior to Jane Got A Gun, there has not been a lot that this reviewer has been excited about in Portman’s career. She started out like gangbusters with Leon: The Professional. Since then it’s been a middling collection of estimations on what a beautiful young actress should do. It’s like she and Keira Knightley took the same class on career advancement. She won an Oscar for Black Swan in a performance for which she really had no business being nominated. She has two modes: severe and affected. Her range has to expand before her looks recede. This is a good start.

The story starts out with Jane Hammond (Portman) and her daughter waiting for the arrival of her husband (Emmerich). When he arrives, he is near dead and Jane fixes him up as good as she can. They are on their way, he tells her between gasps and screams of pain. She should take their daughter and leave.

She does take her daughter to a safer place, but then she seeks out assistance in the form of her ex-fiance Dan Frost (Edgerton), who initially refuses her after reminding her of the obvious. In her effort to secure more supplies at the general store in town, she is assaulted by one of the gang of John Bishop (McGregor) who is in pursuit of Jane and her husband. She escapes and makes her way back to her home with some help.

From here it is a series of preparations and flashbacks. Each one is placed in an effort to answer each question as it arises. To move the story along, essentially. It does it’s job, even if it doesn’t leave any room for nuance or questions. If you wonder what happened at any particular moment, just hang on a few beats and the answer comes.

What the script does not answer adequately are any of the questions surrounding the pursuit of Jane and her husband. He’s been a wanted man for years, yet he lives outside of town. How far away they both are from the Bishop gang is never adequately addressed. When they decided to settle down and raise a family, what kept Bishop and his numerous men from stumbling across them unless they were states away.

Better handled is the progression of events that conspire against women in the old west. As she admonishes her husband for cursing as she dresses his wounds, one thinks, my what an environment she makes in her home. Later, we discover a whole host of atrocities that have been performed on her in the recent past, it occurs to us the strength and resilience one woman must have had among all of those grotesque and evil men in the dust.

Portman does a great job putting us in her shoes but in no way overselling it. This is the actress I have been waiting for since Leon. It has to be no coincidence that she produced this film. Let’s hope she acts in more of her own productions in the future.

Edgerton is excellent in the meaty role of a man betrayed. He releases his aggression in interesting ways and does not let it interfere with his compassion. There are a lot of ways one could play this role between the lines, but Edgerton finds the margins are much more memorable.

Emmerich has little to do in the present, but his flashbacks are neat. He shows us a character who finds right and wrong have a clear delineation and when he decides to act for righteousness, it’s one of the best moments of the film. Leave it to O’Connor to give the fourth lead this kind of gravity and it’s nice to see an actor of Emmerich’s experience seize upon it.

McGregor, called in late to replace two actors, does the most with a role that demands nothing so much as twirling his mustache and dying last. How he goes is very entertaining, though. Hang in for it.

O’Connor has not done nearly as much as a director of his caliber since his incredible last effort, Warrior, mentioned earlier. If nothing else, Jane Got A Gun shows that he can take other people’s material and make something that we can feel. It’s a good, memorable western that allows us to know we come from a stark reality. It is a film that college students of today should watch before they make another demand for safe space. People can survive a lot tougher battles than words.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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