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Jane Got a Gun
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by Jay Seaver

"Not really worth the wait or drama."
2 stars

I wonder, idly, if The Weinstein Company sat on "Jane Got a Gun" so long in the hopes that it would become "that sort of disappointing western" rather than "that movie that self-destructed in spectacular fashion and was put back together without many of the things that made it interesting". I don't know that it becomes a great movie with Lynn Ramsey directing the original cast, but it seems like one where just a little more investment could have made a big difference.

It opens with Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman) playing with her daughter at their homestead in 1871 New Mexico, just as husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) arrives. It's not a happy reunion, as he falls off his horse with three bullets in his back. Old enemies the Bishop Boys have caught up with him, and with "Ham" to injured to move, Jane drops their daughter off with a friend and loads up on weapons, recruiting gunslinger Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) to defend them. Billy Bishop (Ewan McGregor) has about a dozen men, and there's also the issue of what Jane's and Dan's history adds to the situation.

Putting these three in a house together should make things plenty tense regardless of how close the Bishop Boys are, and yet it often seems surprisingly businesslike, with the idea of these three being an uneasy alliance far more involving than what actually happens on screen. There are flashbacks enough to go around, and the occasional conversation discussing what those scenes miss, but this serves more to point out that there's tension and history between these people, and maybe explain it, but seldom to bring it into sharp relief. The best moments along those lines are probably the least articulated verbally, as Ham lies in the bed, every part of his body rapidly failing him, watching his wife's former lover take his place. It's a hellish scenario and director Gavin O'Connor makes the most of it, blurring the picture in point-of-view shots and being very careful with when Ham is in frame.

It almost makes Noah Emmerich's grunting the film's most memorable performance. There's not necessarily a whole lot to compare it with, though; Natalie Portman gives a decent performance as the heroine, capturing almost exactly the story of resilience one expects from the character, but not really tugged off course by her anger nearly enough. Joel Edgerton makes for a very vanilla gunslinger, although it could have been worse: He was initially slated to play the villain, and while Ewan McGregor doesn't break new ground there, he at least takes the fact that he's playing the smartest and most sophisticated member of a gang called "the Bishop Boys" to heart, not hamming it up but countering the thugs around him with a bit of smarm and owning the appropriate facial hair.

In some ways, it's a pity that O'Connor doesn't dive in and make a classic Western, because he handles that end of the movie fairly well, on balance - a couple of nice shootouts, beautiful landscape shots, nasty but colorful henchmen. There's no shortage of bullets in the final act, even if many come during pitch blackness that puts a lot of weight on the sound design. The movie drifts a bit in tone here and there, maybe pushed into becoming something a bit more conventional and crowd-playing than it started out as, but the action keeps things on point.

On top of all the other ways "Jane Got a Gun" was kicked around, it's also got the lousy luck to finally see release at the end of a string of memorable westerns ("Slow West", "Bone Tomahawk", "The Hateful Eight", "The Revenant"), the likes of which we haven't seen in years. It comes off the shelf a year ago, and one is at least excited about that, and maybe even a little more forgiving, but in early 2016, it just doesn't seem up to snuff.

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originally posted: 02/03/16 04:07:11
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  29-Jan-2016 (R)
  DVD: 26-Apr-2016



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