Jane Got a Gun is not original in most aspects of its premise; that is, it is not ground-breaking to stage a Western in an isolated shack in 1870’s New Mexico, in which someone’s past catches up to them and they must shoot their way out. However, the film does diverge in key ways from audience expectation of contemporary Westerns, starting with the gender and persona of its lead character, Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman). Her being a warm, loving mother creates higher stakes and more intrigue for an empathetic audience when her husband Ham (Noah Emmerich) comes home critically injured, and with news that a gang they both have history with is coming for them both. Jane is clearly strong, even from the film’s first scenes where she must process horrifying news and begin mounting a defence within a single day. The preparation sequence is soon juxtaposed with flashbacks depicting Jane’s brutal past and resilience, the latter of which is one of the film’s most important and appealing elements.
Indeed the film’s adherence to genre conventions is often forgiveable for the innovation a hardened lead heroine necessitates. What would be a predictable series of events if gender roles and sexual orientations were different in the film feels instead like a mix of genres, especially since the ally Jane goes to seek for the coming gunfight is her ex-fiance, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), turning Jane Got a Gun from a straight Western into a hybrid romantic drama. Furthermore, while there is as much violence in Jane as might be reasonably expected of a Western, part of the feminist credibility of the film is earned through its largely sensitive reference to sexual violence against women.
Jane’s initial preparation and journey into town is the first of many wonderful shot sequences by cinematographer Mandy Walker, which function throughout the film to perfectly capture the varying moods and scope of scenes in cramped wooden rooms and wide desert plains. Walker’s work accommodates Portman’s flawless performance, which subtly conveys the mix of pain and hope that dominates Jane’s story; all tortured eye contact and a determined but laboured cowboy strut. Director Gavin O’Connor makes good use of an excellent cast, with Ewan McGregor playing convincingly and terrifyingly against type as John Bishop, the oily and opportunistic sadist leading the gang hunting Jane and her family. Rodrigo Santoro makes a similarly revelatory appearance as one of Bishop’s disgusting and mercenary henchmen.
Though it is refreshing to have such well-written and performed female role at its centre, Jane fails at times to give adequate gravity to certain details of its story. There is a lack of context given to Bishop’s motives for pursuing the Hammonds in favour of multiple flashbacks depicting Jane and Dan’s lost happiness, which is where the film loses its footing in terms of genre and pacing. With little background to explain Bishop’s behaviour, the audience is unable to invest in his actions and has to assume he’ll inexplicably attempt to do what’s most evil. With excess weight given to Jane’s former love, the focus is drawn away from the urgency of her current situation, and thus any tension the film hoped to build.
Additionally, the wonderful assertiveness Jane shows whenever she has the opportunity, such as telling the self-pitying Dan to “let the sun shine on someone else’s story”1, is overshadowed at times by a continued emphasis on her romantic connections to men. A devotion to historical accuracy is evidently intended by Jane being engaged or married throughout the film’s entire timeline, along with the absence of any visible people of colour in the principal cast, but Dan and Ham are both irritating and entitled in their pursuits and expectations of Jane, and their constant presence detracts from screentime Jane herself would surely better occupy.
The presence of people of colour in the Wild West must be acknowledged, even if films like this choose to ignore them. While in this respect the film does not achieve all it could for intersectional feminist representation, this does not negate the entire effort. O’Connor’s execution of a compelling heroine’s story is a clumsy but often compelling take on the genre, owing much to the likeability and depth of Portman’s Jane.