To no one’s surprise, at least in the film industry, media world, and the savvy readers that pay attention, The Weinstein Company’s romantic action Western, “Jane Got A Gun,” once owned by Relativity Media before they fell into financial ruin, isn’t very good. To those that don’t play inside baseball, the litany of catastrophes that beset the production are long, and all of its ugliness spilled out into the press before a frame of footage was shot. An attempt at the shortest version: one of the film’s main stars (Michael Fassbender) abruptly walked away one week before production was to begin and the movie’s mercurial director (Lynne Ramsay) soon followed (quit/fired on day one of the shoot; lawsuits soon ensued). It didn’t take long for other key crew to abandon ship (cinematographer Darius Khondji), or for outsiders to toy with the idea of replacing the lost actor (with Jude Law, Bradley Cooper, Jake Gyllenhaal), before realizing this was a bad, bad idea.
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Somewhat miraculously, given all the drama, the production soldiered on with producer/star Natalie Portman and replacement director Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior”), but it probably comes as no real shock that the final version of “Jane Got A Gun” — delayed three times before finally being released this weekend — comes to the screen belatedly in hobbled and handicapped shape.
Not screened for most media outlets, “Jane Got A Gun” is perhaps not as inept and disabled as one would expect of a film that underwent such duress and hardship during production. But faint praise should be all that’s administered, perhaps a thumbs up for avoiding all out disaster.
Set in New Mexico in the post-Civil War, late 1800s, the drama centers on the prideful and self-sufficient Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman) who has built a life on the rugged Western frontier. But as is slowly revealed throughout the movie, it’s an existence formed on the back of a completely shattered former life.
Taking little time to settle in, ‘Gun’ begins as Jane’s husband Bill “Ham” Hammond (Noah Emmerich) comes home riddled with bullets, the victim of the Bishop Boy gang and its relentless leader John (Ewan McGregor). Having run afoul of the Bishops, who’ve been seeking revenge on the former outlaw for past transgressions, things look bleak for the Hammond household. With the husband bed-ridden, feverish, and full of dread, knowing John and his gun will be back, Jane desperately turns to the one man who can help her: Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton). Unfortunately for Jane, Frost is a former fiancé who is still embittered loathes her husband, and feels no compunction in turning down her pleas for help.
Eventually, and in just the nick of time, Frost begrudgingly acquiesces, assists Jane, and hunkers down in their homestead to prepare for what becomes a heart-stopping showdown of violent reckoning and hails of bullets. As Jane and Frost prepare for war, the Bishop gang, hot with vengeance, simultaneously ride all over the New Mexican West hunting their prey. “Jane Got A Gun” intercuts the often bitter tension between the two protagonists with myriad flashbacks elucidating their past and history. And so, with the storm of reprisal and violence bearing down, “Jane Got A Gun” unveils itself as a movie about regret with former lovers haunted and still wounded by painful memories of their shared past, Frost perhaps defending a romantically lost notion of remembrance rather the emotionally-hardened woman from the present.
Separated by a war that split them for three years, each assumed the other was dead and went their separate ways, “Jane Got A Gun” has no shortage of emotional scars and further complicated traumas that are slowly revealed as the movie progresses. The issue is these potentially rich layers of emotional anguish are never well-executed or expressed. Over-reliant on flashbacks, and ones that don’t particularly transition well, “Jane Got A Gun” is nearly a holding pattern movie: the two spiteful former sweethearts resentfully work together as the movie reflects on their once happy union.
But it’s communicated through a kind of shallow, rose-tinted lens. Replacement DP Mandy Walker (“Shattered Glass,” “Truth”), does an admirable job of preserving the dusty, underlit grit of the American West, but the over-prettyified sections of the movie’s egregious flashbacks are too superficially crafted and clean. But don’t blame the DP, these flashbacks are just tonally misguided from the get-go and often feel like a cheap and convenient way to over-explain what might be kept a bit more mysterious.
It’s also hard to lay complete hackjob blame at the feet of filmmaker Gavin O’Connor. He came into a shit situation, rolled up his sleeves, and agreed to be the surgeon who tries his best to clean up the mess. But it’s arguably not enough. His craft is workmanlike, a little dry, and suffers from a lack of visual flair — one imagines a scenario where Lynne Ramsay may have taken the material and injected it with a poeticism that may have transformed all the strained flashbacks into something far less dubious. A fairly barebones story as it is, with a simplistic framework that’s never fleshed out, to make matters worse, O’Connor seems to have little affinity for any elements of the story other than the film’s blistering final action showdown.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that the main characters are fraught with seemingly authentic emotional baggage — or at least wounds that we can relate to on paper — but still appear as fairly one-dimensional. For the most part, a few kinks aside, “Jane Got A Gun” has got a proper skeleton. It’s both simple enough to be sturdy, yet still flabby. The real problem is that there is not enough of a beating heart or soul to propel it forward. To be fair to the entirety of the picture, while claiming Natalie Portman is fundamentally miscast is maybe going a step too far, there’s probably more convincing use of her great talents that portraying a hard-bitten frontierswoman.
Credited to three writers, original scribe Brian Duffield, Anthony Tambakis, and Joel Edgerton — the latter of whom we can probably assume worked on it either during production or during the very public pre-production mess — “Jane Got A Gun” feels handicapped by different and warring sensibilities. The spirit of the screenplay by Duffield points at something more merciless, like “Unforgiven,” examining the cruel, cold realities of post-Civil War life and frontier justice. But the film’s warm and fuzzy, wrap-it-all-up-in-a-bow conclusion and its feel-good romantic flashbacks are tonally at odds, sometimes jarring, and leave a poor aftertaste. The less said about the movie’s final moment, which resemble something out of a Lifetime Western, the better.
‘Jane’ has glints of life in its eye. Its action-packed third act — the OK Corral showdown where the Bishop Boys finally rain down on the Hammond sanctuary, is tense and taut, and there are some reveals here that are surprisingly earnest and heartfelt. If “Jane Got A Gun” ever gets close to convincingly articulating loss, longing, and suffering with poignant currency, it’s within the film’s final twenty minutes. Of course, these touching, even nearly heartbreaking moments are fleeting and often tested by new revelations of their past that are just a little too convenient and and manipulative to fully suspend disbelief. Of course, any good will from the finale is completely undermined by its sentimental and hokey denouement of everyone riding off into the sunset.
For all its plagues and protracted problems, “Jane Got A Gun” is not the calamity many expected. But it is so buckshot-impaired from minute one that its wobbly steps falter often, it never gets a full head of steam, nor ever finds much purchase on its rocky foundations. [C]