Jane Got a Gun has a troubled production history, the film going through several rewrites and directors before ever making it to screen. And it shows, somewhat. The film feels like it wanted to be more ambitious than what it turns out to be. And what it ends up being is a competent piece of genre filmmaking that just doesn’t go very deep. Jane Got a Gun never really becomes a movie worth remembering, but it is solid enough that it isn’t a waste of time.
Jane (Natalie Portman) lives with her family out in the wilds of New Mexico. One day, her husband Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) comes home all shot up, having barely survived an encounter with a gang bearing a vendetta against him. Worse yet, they are still after him, and intend to finish the job. With her husband bedridden, Jane looks for help in defending him from his enemies. She tracks down an ex-lover, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), and asks him to put aside old hurt feelings and stand with her to protect her home. He reluctantly agrees, and the two are forced to confront their past while facing off again a whole gang of gunmen.
The bulk of this movie is given over to flashbacks that fill in the details of the relationships between these characters. There isn't much grace to the storytelling, the movie's middle section pretty much a big exposition dump. There isn't much room in here to really let the characters reckon with what's happened between them. The conflicts that exist between the three main players are resolved without much issue when all is said and done, the complications ironed out through the magic of these lengthy flashbacks.
Given that, there is a grim efficiency to this movie that keeps it watchable. There may not be much more to this movie than its flashbacks and its gunfights, but what's there is pretty solid. The story feels like it came from a different era, a time before Unforgiven and its ilk reshaped the Western genre. But that's not such a bad thing. There are still pleasures to the basic elements of this genre, and the movie goes through it with workmanlike craft. It lacks panache, but the filmmaking does serve this straightforward story pretty well.
The movie certainly doesn't lack for grit. And though the music might swell a little too much in tender moments, the movie keeps a pretty tight rein on the drama. There isn't actually a lot of gunfights, but the movie is able to wring tension out of the situation. The acting is top notch. It takes a bit too long for Jane to show her teeth, but when she does, Natalie Portman displays compelling steeliness. Joel Edgerton is terrific as a man who believes he has already lost everything, and doesn't quite know where he stands. Ewan McGregor is great in a few of his scenes, but the writing of his character feels a little inconsistent.
Jane Got A Gun feels slight, but not bad. There are hints of a much more interesting movie in there, perhaps the traces of the names that were once attached to the project. But what has been produced is a decent piece of Western filmmaking. It's got strong stars and a good sense of place. The character work isn't very deep, but the simple context of time and place gives the story some power. The movie doesn't try very hard to be distinct, but fans of the genre could certainly do worse.