A lot of Westerns have underlying themes of vengeance, the necessity of working together to survive in a harsh environment, and the mysterious loner who saves the day. “Jane Got a Gun” brings us a Western about assumptions – about how assuming things can destroy you, and how moving beyond them can save your life. It’s also just a straightforward good, character-focused story. The action is saved up for the end, but most assuredly does not disappoint.
Jane (Natalie Portman) is the core of the film, the focus of the story both in and out of flashbacks. When her fiance failed to return from the Civil War, she went West. When the film opens, she is married, has a young child, and also has a gang of bad folks coming her way. Her husband, Hamm (Noah Emmerich) comes home with a bunch of bullets in his back and word that the vicious outlaws the Bishop Boys are coming. Jane puts on her hat, takes her daughter to a friend’s for safety, and goes to recruit help: Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton). He refuses at first, but changes his mind, and the two set about preparing the house (which Hamm and Jane located with possible attack in mind) for the coming of the gang.
Gradually, as Dan and Jane prepare the house and themselves for the coming battle, we learn a bit more about them and their history. Dan is the former fiance presumed dead in the war, which does a lot to explain his initial refusal to help her. They haven’t communicated much since he came out to the frontier, and it’s easy to see why. Hamm spends most of the film in bed, trying not to bleed to death. He has no particular animosity toward Dan, but Dan most assuredly hates him.
That hate, we learn, comes from assumptions he made from Jane’s decisions – which were based on her own assumptions. These are very human characters, folks who make mistakes and then have to find their way through the consequences.
The three central characters are all played with skill and a layer of hardness over emotional soft spots. When we see Jane and Dan in flashbacks, it’s esy to see how much the years between their engagement and the coming battle have changed them. Jane is no longer the wild-haired, brightly-colored dress wearing adventurer she once was. Now she’s practical, serious, and completely determined to stand and fight to protect her family. She also knows how to deal with gunshots and is a crack shot with a rifle.
Portman handles the role and its various permutations with skill. It’s hard not to be reminded of her work in “The Professional” back in 1994. She knows how to play innocents and how to play people with a lot of trauma in their histories. Emmerich and Edgerton have simpler roles, but occupy them with focus, giving us a bit of insight into the two men in Jane’s life.
Our main villain is the leader of the Bishop Boys, and boy does Ewan McGregor have a blast in the part. There’s no subtlety here, just a thoroughly ambitious man willing to do just about anything to get his way. He leads the gang with an iron fist, a wide smile under his borderline-Snidely-Whiplash mustache.
“Jane Got a Gun” takes a while to get started, and is definitely not for folks who expect high suspense and lots of action threaded throughout a movie. It’s well worth seeing for folks interested in characters and those looking to see a film about a woman that lets her be just as complex and heroic as the men. If you liked director Gavin O’Connor’s 2011 film “Warrior,” “Jane Got a Gun” is a good bet.