[UPDATE 4/23/2016: I loved this movie so much I also wrote a more in-depth analysis of it here. Note that it gives away the ending.]
The Western genre more or less died out after the 1970s. The social scientist in me wants to attribute this to the cultural change in that decade–the mythology of the American West was focused heavily on the image of white men with guns as heroes, and cast other groups as either supporting characters or villains. Not the most progressive genre.
But as the title indicates, Jane Got a Gun gives the firearms to a female–a mother, protecting her family from a gang of villains called “The Bishop Boys”, named for their cruel leader. (Ewan McGregor)
Natalie Portman plays Jane, the frontierswoman whose husband Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) encounters his old gang and is shot nearly to death by them. When he returns home on the verge of death, Jane takes her young daughter to safety and rides off to get help from her old fiancé, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), whom she believed had died in the Civil War, and had met again only after her marriage to Bill.
Dan at first refuses to help, still bitter that Jane left him for Bill. The Bishop Boys, meanwhile, are interrogating one of Hammond’s associates in the fur trade regarding his whereabouts. Bishop clearly remembers Jane as well, and means to track them both down.
Having been rebuffed by Dan, Jane rides into town to buy weapons. As Jane is leaving town with her arms and ammunition, one of the Bishop Boy goons drags her into an alley and holds her at gunpoint, demanding to know where Hammond is and threatening to rape her.
Dan arrives, and aims his rifle at the gang member, who offers to split the bounty on Bill Hammond with him. Dan listens, feigning interest, and Jane takes the opportunity to fire a shot into the thug’s head.
Jane and Dan hastily ride out of town and back to Jane’s ranch, where Jane pays Dan to help prepare them for the inevitable attack by the Bishop Boys. During this, we see flashbacks to Jane and Dan’s courtship, as well as to the beginning of the trouble with the Bishop gang.
Gradually, as she and Dan scramble to prepare the home’s defenses while also tending to the wounded Bill, their old feelings start to emerge. Dan recounts how his love for Jane had sustained him through the War, and how it broke him to find that she’d married another man and had a child with him.
That night, Dan’s resentment towards Bill nearly boils over, and he holds his gun at the bed-ridden man–until Jane enters, which prompts the drunken gunslinger to stagger away, muttering “I don’t know what you saw in him.”
As Dan keeps watch from the upstairs window that night, Jane joins him and tells him about what happened to her after she joined the Bishop’s wagon train. She had a daughter (named Mary, after Dan’s mother) with her when she placed herself under Bishops’ “protection”. The Bishops then took Mary from Jane, and forced Jane into prostitution. The scene flashes back to when Hammond, as a member of the gang, tried to free her, but was prevented by Bishop.
The next scene was perhaps the most disturbing, as Hammond asks one of Bishop’s men what became of Mary. He chillingly replies something to the effect that “Bishop told me to ‘take care of her’–he didn’t explain what he meant, so I made my best guess. Did you know she can’t swim?”
In a fury, Hammond races to the brothel and, in a violent but extremely cathartic scene, guns down the clientele and rescues a weeping Jane.
The transition from Dan’s face as Jane begins telling the story, to the flashback sequence, and then back to Dan, is really powerful. His expression changes completely, and his rage is such that he can barely spit a few words to say that he hopes John Bishop himself is coming.
As the night wears on, Jane and Dan venture outside the house. The scene is dark and atmospheric, and Jane utters a few words of courageous resolve. Then, shots ring out and Jane and Dan both hit the ground.
So begins the climactic showdown–I won’t spoil the ending for you, but suffice it to say that it is immensely satisfying. Not to give too much away, but watch for a certain transition that begins with a close-up on a revolver barrel–it works really well.
What a lot of the “feminist” or “strong woman” action movies get wrong is to portray the woman as a Rambo-like super-human, crushing everything in her path. Jane Got a Gun avoids this pitfall–Jane is believably vulnerable, but gains her strength on fiery resolve and force of will, rather than impossible physical strength. Portman does a terrific job conveying the transformation from sweet, innocent girl to hardened frontierswoman that Jane undergoes.
Edgerton is suitably gruff while conveying an underlying decency, and his chemistry with Portman is absolutely marvelous. McGregor is the very picture of the “villain we love to hate”. All the Bishop gang henchmen are utterly loathsome in different ways, making each one’s demise a satisfyingly bloody catharsis.
The beautiful landscapes and moody soundtrack really stuck with me. I’ve been a sucker for desert movies since I saw Lawrence of Arabia as an impressionable sixteen-year-old, and my Fallout: New Vegas binge only solidified my love for the harsh, barren landscapes. Jane uses this type of scenery to create a marvelous feeling of loneliness and isolation.
It was interesting to watch this movie so soon after seeing the new Star Wars film. Jane’s behind-the-scenes connections to Star Wars are well-documented, as Portman, McGregor and Edgerton all appeared in the prequel trilogy. More significantly than that, the original Star Wars, which the new one tries so hard to imitate, was really just George Lucas’s reinvention of the western–an attempt to translate the familiar Good vs. Evil melodrama for a new generation.
The latest Star Wars tries to do this too, but fails badly on every level. Jane Got a Gun (while obviously not a film for children, because of the violence) succeeds in capturing this old-fashioned spirit.
Both films feature a Good vs. Evil plot with a strong heroine, a reluctant hero, and a cruel villain. But while Star Wars‘s Daisy Ridley and John Boyega fail in their attempts to portray the archetypes of “strong heroine” and “reluctant hero”, respectively; Portman and Edgerton play those same roles to perfection. McGregor, meanwhile, brings a chilling charisma to the villain’s role–exactly the sort of touch Adam Driver failed to give his cartoon bad guy in Star Wars.
Jane Got a Gun does not reinvent the Western by any means, but it certainly revives it admirably. The performances are all first-rate, and the pacing is terrific. It is marketed as an action film, but there is plenty of romance and suspense as well, and the haunting desert landscape and soundtrack give it a very strong atmosphere. Go see it.