Starring: Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Mood: If everything sucks and you want to wallow in a star-crossed love story that combines grisly violence with a lot of heartbreak and Natalie Portman literally blowing someone’s brains out.
I bought Jane Got a Gun six months ago, and somehow didn’t get around to watching it. I can’t explain it – I just kept picking other Westerns whenever I had time to watch a movie (which is now ALL THE TIME, because pandemic).
It might be because every time I looked at the DVD, Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” immediately started playing in my head, and refused to leave for the rest of the day.
Ear worms aside, Jane Got a Gun should have jumped to the top of the pile. It’s a female-driven Western. It’s starring powerhouse Natalie F*cking Portman. And yesterday I realized it also features another favourite of mine, Ewan McGregor. A Portman-McGregor Western!
I put it on without reading the DVD jacket, expecting a few things:
- A flawless and intense performance by Natalie Portman
- An exciting and wholly different Ewan McGregor character, because everything he does is so vastly varied
- Some kind of female gunslinger revenge story
One out of those three things is true of this movie. But holy crap, did it put me through it. If you’re already feeling some kind of way, be prepared to multiply that by 100 when the end credits roll.
Jane Got a Gun is set in the late 1870s. Jane Hammond (Portman) is telling a bedtime story to her young daughter. In the next scene, she’s on the porch and lights up as she sees her husband riding up to the homestead. But he falls from his horse, riddled with bullets.
While caring for his wounds, Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) tells Jane “Bishop’s boys are coming”. The remark sends her flying into action, packing up to leave their home. Bill tells her not to come back, and Jane says he should know her better than that. You have no idea what is going on, but you can tell it’s bad.
She takes her daughter to a family friend, then visits another home. The man there tells her she’s not welcome. She pleads her case about these Bishop men, but the man (Dan Frost, played by Joel Edgerton) bitterly tells her that if she wants help she should ask her husband. I’ve watched enough rom-coms to recognize a jilted ex who’s drinking away a broken heart.
Jane goes into town to load up on firearms and powder, but is snatched from the street. This triggers the first in a series of increasingly violent ambushes by the aforementioned Bishop men. Dan arrives in time to help her – but it’s not a rescue, because she’s the one who shoots the man in the head and you see brains fly out the back.
Now you have a woman and her reluctant ex planning how to hold down her homestead and protect her barely alive husband from a massive attack by a gang of serious AF bad guys. The rest of the movie alternates between that and flashbacks explaining exactly how Jane, Dan, and Bishop (Ewan McGregor) know each other.
The thing about Jane Got a Gun is that it’s somehow several kinds of movies at once. It’s definitely a Western, taking place in the American West during the period favoured by the genre. You’ve got wagons and horses and six-shooters and rifles and all that fun stuff. It’s also an action movie, because the attacks and shootouts are gloriously violent, with excellent VFX on the first ambush at the homestead.
But it’s also a gut-wrenching relationship story that will drag you through every emotion, repeatedly. As Jane and Dan’s history unfolds and you understand the pain their characters have already experienced, it makes their current situation even more dramatic. At the same time the fear and tension are rapidly building as Bishop’s men close in, until they’re backed into a claustrophobic corner.
This needs to be said: HOLY F*CK, Natalie Portman can act. There’s a scene where she finds out particularly horrifying news, and her visceral reaction was so convincingly broken that I instantly started ugly crying along with her.
Portman gives you that fine balance of strength and vulnerability, like Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead. Her Jane isn’t some impossible-to-kill walking badass out of a Tarantino movie; she’s a believably tough, capable woman who happens to be deadly with a Henry 1860 rifle because she’s a frontier woman who knows how to hunt for her family’s food.
Joel Edgerton was brilliant in Bright, and this is another excellent performance. His ability to convey a flurry of emotions in a single, long look is captivating. Jane may be married, but watching Edgerton’s stoic suffering makes you root for Dan and then question what kind of person you are… and then not care because you just want to hug the guy and tell him it will be alright.
It pains me to say this, but I wasn’t into Ewan McGregor as John Bishop. I guess I was expecting some kind of total transformation, like how Chris Pratt made you thoroughly hate him in The Kid. McGregor was okay, but he didn’t come across as THAT bad. He wasn’t commanding, and he didn’t look capable of murder. I wasn’t afraid of his dark rage like Powers Boothe or Ian McShane in Deadwood, or intimidated by his deadly skill like Michael Biehn’s Johnny Ringo in Tombstone or Russell Crowe’s Ben Wade in 3:10 to Yuma.
That’s just five of many actors in modern Westerns that succeeded where McGregor fell flat. I’ve loved McGregor in everything from Trainspotting and Down with Love to the Star Wars movies. I feel like a traitor for saying he sucked, but there just wasn’t anything unique or thrilling about his performance.
Apparently Bradley Cooper was originally cast in McGregor’s role but had to drop out. Then Tobey Maguire, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hiddleston, and Jake Gyllenhaal were considered. I would give ANYTHING to see JGL in a f*cking Western.
Jane Got a Gun is really well-shot, whether it’s panoramic desert views or beautifully lit faces in a somber night scene. The movie has layers upon layers of hooks that keep you tensely engaged from start to finish.
I did find all of the actors’ teeth distracting. Like even in the middle of a dust storm, their teeth are literally glowing through the dirt and grime. I get that actors have those red carpet smiles, but can you at least try to style the teeth as much as you do the hair and clothes? At least on the men?
My only other issue with Jane Got a Gun was when Jane and Dan were lying in wait for the attack, then Dan heard something and proceeded to walk onto the porch in the middle of the night and stare into the surrounding darkness. This is a man who fought in the Civil War, and was apparently really good at it because other characters say they’d heard of him and his military successes – so why the f*ck would his character do something that stupid?
Let me tell you though – when those end credits rolled, I was done with feelings for the day. Too many. No more, please and thanks.