As out-of-fashion as the Western may seem, it’s a genre that still persists in one form or another. Lately, it’s even become somewhat trendy for A-list actresses to shed their glamorous images, adorn some frumpy frontier wardrobe, and take the lead role in decidedly unglamorous projects about hard-living in the Old West. Following the trail of Hilary Swank, Cate Blanchett and Michelle Williams, Natalie Portman stars in (and produced) Jane Got A Gun, a rugged, blood-and-guts Western with some heart to go with the viscera. Directed by Gavin O’Connor, purveyor of the fine sports dramas Miracle and Warrior, the film may have some moments of intensity and tenderness, thanks to Portman, O’Connor and co-star/co-writer Joel Edgarton; but mostly it’s just a fair picture, underdone by flaws in its script, as the storytelling is too reliant on exposition and plot shortcuts.
When the film begins, Portman’s Jane Ballard is putting her young daughter to bed, making shadow puppets and telling a bedtime story, the moral of which has something to do with the nature of good and bad men. The promise of a Western rooted in moral confusion is not really fulfilled by the subsequent events. The next day, Jane, a homesteader in the New Mexico Territory in the 1870’s, finds herself in a tough spot when her boyfriend, a wanted man named Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich), comes home, shot up by a gang of outlaws called the Bishop Boys, and falls lifelessly from his horse. Jane now puts him to bed, digs the slugs from his back and cauterizes the holes with gunpowder. Knowing that the marauders are coming to finish the job, she goes looking for a hired gun to protect them, and she conscripts Dan Frost (Edgarton), a Civil War veteran whose history with Jane goes back to Missouri before the war. While the two wait and prepare for the inevitable assault, the gaps in the characters’ backstories are filled using flashbacks and expository dialogue. Here, the relationship between the syuzhet and the fabula (the presentation of a narrative and the chronological order of events therein, respectively) is too pointlessly confounded. Whatever emotional payoff results from the temporal back-and-forth can’t overcome the nagging feeling that a simple story has been overcomplicated and that better filmmakers might’ve achieved stronger results with more straightforward action and dialogue.
In that long second act, the plot slows down just so we can catch up; and the film would’ve lurched into tedium, were we not allowed to luxuriate in some of its finer aesthetic qualities. A long sequence when Jane and Frost reminisce is coated in the bluest moonlight, to emphasize the pathos of their stories, sure, but also to suggest the desolation of a landscape so devoid of light that the heavens could alter every hue. In contrast, the exterior day scenes, as when Jane rides hours to a neighboring farm where she’ll hide her daughter, seemed impossibly bright, as if the sun were an inescapable quilt of fire draped upon miles and miles of caked sand and cacti. In many Westerns, home is sanctuary, and Jane’s desert abode, always lit in wooden-slat chiaroscuro, is not exactly welcoming; instead it expresses a literal dark obscurity to match the secrecy of the characters’ pasts. Also, the makeup art of two particularly boorish gang members left an impression. One wore a crude tribal tattoo around his right eye, and insects might thrive between his rotting teeth. The other displayed a hideous, elongated scar working its way from his jawline to his collar bone, the aftermath of a bullet to the throat, we learn. Their leader is a coldblooded dandy named John Bishop, played by Ewen McGregor with a neatly cropped mustache, which makes him standout amongst his unwashed goons. He’s the kind of character who’s refined about his cruelty, who probably wastes his bank-robbery spoils on fine suits and pomade. He’s also a bit of a cliche (Guy Pearce did the same schtick in Lawless), and to be honest, not despicable enough to be a proper villain and not rounded enough to represent a complex human being.
Because the film is, at least superficially, about complicated morality, no male character is either completely good or completely bad. Jane’s goodness, however, is never in question, and, since women in the West must wear many hats, she maneuvers skillfully from nurse to gunslinger to her most heroic role as devoted mother. It’s more than likely that what attracted Portman to the project was the idea of playing a strong mother, given her recent marriage and childbirth. Maternity is an important theme in the movie, but one that is never fully realized. We never see how it might pertain to other characters, and despite Portman’s solid performance — her steely glower, bereaved wailing and adroit horseback-riding— she never makes Jane’s motherhood, or the fear that it could at any moment be revoked, a part of her breathing essence. Supposedly, before O’Connor took over, the film was developed with Lynn Ramsay, the Scottish art-house director behind Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar. Several years ago, Ramsay made one of recent memory’s more disturbing films about a parent-child relationship: We Need To Talk About Kevin. With Ramsay directing, Jane Got A Gun might’ve had a darker, more provocative perspective on motherhood, especially as it related to frontier life and the unfortunate reality that, in those days, most children were not expected to live passed infancy. O’Connor and Portman, along with screenwriters Edgarton, Brian Duffield and Anthony Tambakis, instead chose to collaborate on something more cosy and optimistic, I speculate.
The denouement certainly suggests as much. It manages to rap the story up nicely, with an almost karmic, fatalistic sense of wrongs righted and good acts repaid with good fortune. That said, I couldn’t overlook the plot holes along the way, especially those pertaining to Jane’s decision to leave Missouri in the first place, and the Bishop Boys uncanny tracking skills leading them too conveniently to the right place. All in all, Jane Got A Gun, despite some impressive cinematography and authentic mise-en-scene, is only a mediocre sagebrush saga, burdened with exposition, riddled with dramatic holes, and sliced into thin characterizations. We need more female-centric movies, especially those that lionize motherhood; and we could use more traditional Westerns, too. Alas, Jane Got A Gun doesn’t satisfactorily remedy those oversights. It digs out the bullets, but can’t cauterize the wounds.