Jane Got a Gun premiered on January 29, 2016. I had been looking forward to it since I learned of its existence, and with the film finally, finally hitting the big screen, of course I had to see it on opening day. It was a bright, unseasonably warm day for winter in Ohio, and I went to the nearby AMC for an afternoon show in a nearly-deserted theater.
I enjoyed the film from the start. It was not just good, it was surprisingly good. Then, at a certain point, about halfway through the film, the drama reached a critical point, and I can distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, no–I certainly hope they’re not going to…”
But hold up a minute. I’m getting ahead of myself, diving right in to the memories and not putting things in the right order. Like the film’s heroine Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) says at one point, “It’s hard to remember how things seemed… when you know how they actually turned out.”
The behind-the-scenes story of Jane Got a Gun begins in 2012, with a script by Brian Duffield, to be distributed by Relativity Media, directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Natalie Portman. Michael Fassbender was cast in the role of Dan Frost, Jane’s former fiancé. However, Fassbender soon left the part, and was replaced by Joel Edgerton, who had originally been cast as the villain, John Bishop. Jude Law and Bradley Cooper were both briefly on board, before finally Ewan McGregor was cast as Bishop. In the middle of all this, Ramsay left the production less than amicably, causing more turmoil that was resolved in part thanks to the timely intercession of lawyer David Boies.
Ramsay was replaced by Gavin O’Connor. O’Connor, Edgerton and screenwriter Anthony Tambakis then re-wrote Duffield’s script, and filming finally took place in 2013. The filming itself seems to have gone smoothly–in the words of Edgerton, “We’re winning out there.”
Relativity Media had initially scheduled the film for a February 2015 release. But it was delayed, and Relativity filed for bankruptcy in mid-2015. Fortunately, there was another studio that had agreed to distribute the film, and the rights to Jane Got a Gun were released from Relativity and secured by the Weinstein Company, which scheduled the film for distribution.
The Paris premiere was scheduled for November 15, 2015, but was canceled due to the November 13 terrorist attacks. The film finally premiered in Germany in late December 2015, and in France and the United States in January 2016.
Of course, I can’t talk about a Weinstein Company film without also talking about the infamous film producer, who was then about a year away from being publicly disgraced. One of the many unsavory aspects of Harvey Weinstein’s personality that came to light after his downfall was that he would occasionally sabotage his own company’s films. I have no idea if anything like that happened with Jane Got a Gun, but the decision not to screen the film for critics can’t have helped its chances, and undoubtedly contributed to its poor showing at the box office.
It was a film dogged at every step by negativity, with only cursory promotional efforts, in a relatively unpopular genre, and hamstrung by a misleading title that makes it sound more like a fast-paced action picture than what it really is.
And after all that, it was gone as soon as it had come. It was only in theaters for about three weeks and grossed about $3 million against a $25 million budget.
As anyone who followed my blog at the time knows, I loved the movie. I wrote a glowing review. Two glowing reviews, actually, because I wrote about it again in more detail when it came out on home media. And owing, I suspect, to the scarcity of other reviews, these were some of my most-viewed posts ever.
Which speaks to the fact that a major reason it wasn’t more successful is that not many movie-goers ever knew it existed. And I’d argue that the reasons not many movie-goers knew it existed can tell us a lot about the movie business, the entertainment industry as a whole, and American culture generally.
That sounds like quite a leap, I know. (Or, as Dan Frost would say, a “very big jump, my friend.”) To begin with, let’s talk about why Jane Got a Gun is significant to me.
Natalie Portman is probably my favorite actress, and part of the reason for that, as I’ve discussed before, is her willingness to experiment. She doesn’t let herself be typecast, but is willing to play all sorts of different roles in different kinds of movies. I respect this risk-taking. Portman films aren’t always good, but they are almost always interesting.
I also like movies that take place in remote, bleak desert settings, and the New Mexico landscapes of Jane Got a Gun are just gorgeous to my eye. While I could do without the washed-out lens filter, the sweeping vistas and extraordinary rock formations make the setting instantly compelling.
I went into Jane Got a Gun hoping to see Natalie Portman in a good old-fashioned western adventure, and as a bonus, see the always-entertaining Ewan McGregor as a villain I loved to hate. And I got all that–but the movie surprised me at the same time, even while delivering on all fronts. How is that possible?
Time for one of my Socratic movie quizzes: what’s Jane Got a Gun about?
Okay, since many of you haven’t seen it, I’ll give you the cliffs-notes summary answer. It’s not the real answer, of course, but you know what I’m like. And anyway, a little plot synopsis will be handy to have as you read this.
Jane Got a Gun is about Jane Ballard, a woman who was kidnapped by a gang of criminals, escaped with the help of a man whom she married and built a new life with, only to find herself once again pursued by the gang, and forced to seek help from her ex-fiancé, Dan Frost, whom she had until recently believed died in the Civil War.
Ah, Dan Frost. He’s as good a place as any to start with where this movie surprised me. Previously, I knew Joel Edgerton as young Uncle Owen in the Star Wars prequels, where he has about two minutes of screen time and does nothing but stand around and hold a dirty rag.
After you watch Jane Got a Gun, it’s impossible to watch the scenes with Owen in Attack of the Clones the same way. In the scene from Star Wars, Portman and Edgerton are both unremarkable, standing vacantly with no lines or “stage business” to do. In Jane Got a Gun, every scene between the two is filled with tension–Edgerton can convey so much emotion with simply an expression, or a grunt, or a small gesture. And as Edgerton said of his co-star’s talents, “We’ve actually coined the phrase ‘The Portman’ to describe how she can say a line without saying a word, just with a look.”
This illustrates one way in which Jane Got a Gun runs contrary to modern sensibilities. Characters–especially the good characters–do not wear their hearts on their sleeves, but for the most part behave with reserve and restraint. We only see Jane and Dan kiss in flashbacks–circumstances dictate they must keep their feelings controlled, and the few glimpses we see of their emotions bubbling close to the surface are moments of intense drama. Even as they prepare to fight for their lives, the couple is reminded constantly of their past.
One good example of this is the transition from Jane’s memory of a carefree afternoon with her fiancé back in Missouri to the grim present, as the sweaty, tired figure of her former lover takes a break from digging a defensive trench to check the vast desolation for any sign of the Bishop gang. Without a word being spoken, Portman’s face and the soundtrack convey the bittersweetness of remembering happier times.
I’ve lent my copy of Jane Got a Gun to a great many friends, at first just out of a sense of wanting to share something I enjoyed, and over time out of an interest in the different reactions they would have to it. Some of them have loved it as much as I do. Others thought it was just middling, still others have called it boring and bad. One friend told me he thought it was dull, but that perhaps that was an intentional choice, to capture the slower pace of life in the 1870s. Another friend of mine, who generally hates any movie made after 1965, complained about the lens filter but said his wife called the character of Jane Ballard “just about perfect.”
I’ve seen the movie enough times that it gallops by, but at the same time I guess I can understand how some would find it slow… sort of. Well, maybe. No, not really.
Here’s the thing: if you’re used to loud, fast, big, action-packed spectacles of movies, then I guess this would seem slow. And yeah, the title does imply that’s what this film is going to be. A pulse-pounding Wild West shoot-’em-up with a female gunslinger, kind of like the 2006 film Bandidas. Maybe that’s the kind of movie Duffield’s script originally called for. And there’s nothing wrong with that kind of movie. I like Bandidas.
But Jane Got a Gun isn’t that kind of movie. It’s mostly quiet, punctuated by a few moments of intense action. There are no over-the-top special effects or stunt-work. Because it’s not about the action scenes; not really. That’s why the title is so misleading. To say nothing of some of the posters…
(If you’ve ever wondered if people who make movie posters have to watch the movie beforehand, the answer is pretty clearly “no.”)
Jane Got a Gun is not about guns, even though there are guns in it. It’s not about Jane avenging the wrong that was done to her, although that does happen. It’s not about a frontierswoman proving herself just as adept a sharpshooter as the men, although that also happens.
Jane Got a Gun is actually about listening to other people.
I think 2016 will be remembered as a very significant year in history. I mean, every year is significant to a historian, since they are all part of a linked causal chain of events, but 2016 is going to be one of those dates that everyone will know, like 1776, 1865, 1939, and 1968.
2016 was the year when the American political system and the unending noise machine of modern communication combined to produce systemic shocks right to the heart of our centuries-old system of government. In 2016, all the fissures and divides across the nation were laid bare, and the repercussions are still being felt, and will be for decades; perhaps centuries to come.
2016 was the year that people shouting at each other through mass media finally, irrevocably, unforgettably, changed the landscape of American politics.
What does this have to do with Jane Got a Gun?
You know how sometimes you’ll hear about how a movie perfectly evokes the “mood” of a certain time? What pretentious critics, like me, call the “zeitgeist?” For example, how Taxi Driver supposedly captured the rebellious alienation of the 1970s.
Jane Got a Gun does the opposite of that. Jane Got a Gun is like if you captured the essential spirit of 2016, and then made something that was in every way the antithesis of it.
Jane and Dan’s relationship changes when they stop arguing and start listening. Dan’s relationship with Jane’s husband, Bill Hammond, changes when he stops making assumptions and listens to what Jane says about him. Even at the climax of the film, when Jane finally confronts John Bishop, she waits to hear what he says before bringing him to justice–and is rewarded for doing so.
It’s a quiet, old-fashioned movie, about the importance of understanding and reconciling with other people. There are villains, yes; but the real drama of Jane Got a Gun is in the relationship between Jane and Dan. It’s more of a romance than an action film, but a romance set against the backdrop of bleak and desolate frontier; a society being built in the shadow of a nation ravaged by war.
It’s not a Civil War movie, but the recent war has clearly left its mark on the characters, in all sorts of ways, as when the aristocratic John Bishop (who clearly avoided serving on either side) jovially shows off his war souvenirs to Frost. He casually tells the former soldier, while regarding an officer’s pistol used at the battle of Shiloh: “Shiloh means ‘place of peace’ in Hebrew.” Frost, having become all too familiar with the horrors of war, grimly replies, “Ain’t nothin’ peaceful about Shiloh.”
Much of the film is about coming to terms with the after-effects of something horrible, whether it’s Jane overcoming what Bishop and his gang did to her, or Dan overcoming his suffering in a prison camp. And that’s why it’s set in the post-war West, when the country was struggling to build anew, after enduring trauma.
Jane Got a Gun is a film about healing. It’s hard to imagine a film more out of sync with the atmosphere of 2016.
In an interview promoting the film, Portman described it as “very American.” Indeed, I’d argue that Jane Got a Gun is possibly one of the most quintessentially American movies made since the turn of the century. It’s a Western, which is the stereotypically American genre. It’s about a pivotal period in the nation’s history–essentially, a re-founding period when the modern United States was being created.
And to quote from the production notes:
Jane Got a Gun was created by an international grouping of cast and filmmakers including Australians Joel Edgerton and director of photography Mandy Walker, Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, and Irish dialect coach Gerry Grinnell-all bringing new perspectives to the classic American Western.
Portman offers, “It’s always wonderful when people make art in unfamiliar surroundings. Tolstoy’s theory is about how art is about making things strange, and with an Australian and a Brazilian on board it’s already strange and so it’s immediately art. That’s why Sergio Leone made such great Westerns – to have that completely different, non-American vision of the West.”
Put all this together with the production difficulties, and you have a behind-the-scenes narrative that’s nearly as much of a romanticized vision of America as the classic Western genre itself. In my second blog post about the film, I wrote:
Jane Got a Gun evokes the best of the American frontier mythology: hope and triumph in the face of harsh and unforgiving circumstances. That it has such a diverse international cast and crew only adds to this feeling, as people of different nations coming together is very much the story of America itself.
There have been times when I think about these kinds of assertions and wonder, “Am I overstating this? Reading too much into it; seeing things that aren’t there?” I’ve been known to do that sometimes, so it’s certainly possible.
But then there’s this behind-the-scenes photo:
Does Jane Got a Gun still matter? Maybe that’s the wrong question. With the exceptions of the people who made it and me, it’s not clear that Jane Got a Gun mattered much to anybody in January 2016.
Does it matter to anyone else now, five years later?
This is the part where I’m supposed to say something like, ‘I’d argue that it does, because…’ or something of the sort. Certainly, it would be pretty rotten of me to lead you all the way down this particularly winding memory lane only to tell you no, it doesn’t matter.
But I can’t answer the question. It’s your call to make, dear reader; not mine. Pretentious critics–again, like me–think we can persuade people, that we can shape tastes, that we can, in some sense, tell people what to think of a film, or a book, or a painting. But we can’t. All we can really do is describe the complex, personal reactions that we have to art.
The really key scene in Jane Got a Gun; the one that I think is the emotional heart of it, is the one I mentioned at the start of this post, where for a moment, I was concerned the plot would go in a really stupid direction. It’s the scene where Jane walks out to Dan as he’s digging a defensive trench. Seeing him again has brought back a lot of memories for Jane, and she wants to try to smooth things over with him, on what could be their last day alive. So she says, “Why’d you change your mind to help me?”
Jane knows the answer, of course; and so does Dan: he loves her, even though he thinks she left him for another man, even though he’s probably going to die because of her–he loves her. But Dan is still furious at her, and besides which, she’s married. So he can’t say it, instead grumbling, “I dunno.”
This escalates to a tense discussion in which the two former lovers rehash their past, and all the choices that led them here, each one increasingly blaming the other, until finally Jane says, “You know what, Dan…”
I thought she was going to tell him to leave. I foresaw the most hackneyed Hollywood story imaginable: Jane tells him to get lost, Dan rides off in a huff, only to ride back in at the 11th hour and save the day.
But that didn’t happen. What happened instead is what sets Jane Got a Gun apart.
In an interview with Elle magazine in 2013–shortly after filming wrapped on Jane Got a Gun—Portman said:
The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a “feminist” story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.
One of the contemporary criticisms of Jane Got a Gun was exactly this–that Jane doesn’t single-handedly go in guns-blazing and wipe out Bishop and his gang. Jane Ballard isn’t a one-woman army, and if she were, the film would be worse for it. She fights back, but she does so in a way that makes her relatable.
She is, in other words, “a real person that we can empathize with.”
The film works, or doesn’t, to the extent that the audience is prepared to empathize with the characters. That might be true of most films, although I’d hesitate to say “all films”–there are some that pretty clearly rely solely on spectacle or nostalgia or fan service to sell themselves. That’s one reason Hollywood loves their sequels and franchises so much: it’s easier to expect audiences to continue following characters they already know.
Jane Got a Gun is a throwback to another era of filmmaking. That much is obvious just by virtue of it being a Western. Westerns used to be a staple of Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s, but have since become increasingly rare. It’s also a throwback in its self-contained nature. Even if it had been a financial success, it’s hard to imagine it spawning a “Jane Ballard” franchise.
It’s a good match for me, because I am a throwback to a different era of filmgoer. I follow movie stars more than franchises, much as audiences did at the height of classic cinema. I saw Jane Got a Gun because it had Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor in it. (And after seeing it, I watched a bunch of Joel Edgerton films.)
I love the film for the cast’s expressive performances, that communicate so much in so few words. I love the haunting, melancholy soundtrack. I love the vast, sprawling desert setting that is both harsh and beautiful. I love the tight, spare script, that takes us on a journey that is at times very dark, but ultimately uplifting. I’m not ashamed to say I think I could recite the entire film from memory, but I’ll end this retrospective by quoting just two more lines.
The first is the one that I’ve been teasing you with throughout this review. The one that encapsulates the film’s theme–the empathetic optimism that enables Jane to triumph over all the darkness in her life. The line she says after, “You know what, Dan…” The script might have gone any number of directions just then, and maybe in previous iterations, it did.
But what Jane says next is the insight that makes me come back to it again and again, that makes it a film so blatantly out of step with the cultural mood of its epoch, and so wonderfully timeless. After everything she’s suffered, all the misery she’s had to endure, Jane takes a deep breath to collect herself and says to her former lover:
You might want to see a day where the sun don’t just shine on your story. Because there is a whole world out there of other people’s tales, if you just care and listen.
To which, dear reader, I will append only these words, that Dan says to Bill Hammond at a particularly tense moment:
…and I want you to think about that with the shank of time that you’ve got left.