Jane Got a Gun’s reputation precedes it, but it shouldn’t define it. After a tortured production that included the departure of original director Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin) and a revolving door of leading men, the western arrives in theaters long after popular opinion declared it DOA. Say this for Gavin O’Connor, who took the reins from Ramsay with Natalie Portman as the only original cast member still standing: His movie has a pulse.
Most of its characters, however, aren’t long for this world. “The Bishop Boys are coming,” says Jane’s husband, Bill (Noah Emmerich), after arriving home riddled with gunshot wounds. We don’t yet know who the Bishop Boys actually are, nor do we need to — the fun of films like this is in how little it takes to get the troubles going. All that matters is that a roving band of outlaws led by the group’s namesake (Ewan McGregor) is on its way to finish off Bill and anyone who would stop them.
The last few westerns worth their salt — especially Meek’s Cutoff and The Homesman — likewise centered on women; being that the oater is the most endlessly modulated of all film genres, this may be the freshest revisionist approach left. O’Connor’s movie is too sentimental and self-serious to add much of note to the mythos, but Portman embodies her character’s grief no less movingly than her forebears.
Jane Got a Gun jumps between the present of 1871 and the past of 1864, with everyone its heroine and her husband have supposedly wronged (or, more likely, been wronged by) coming out of the woodwork to finish what started nearly a decade earlier. This leaves the happy couple and Jane’s former fiancé (it’s complicated) with only one viable option: Home Alone the hell out of their remote abode, batten down the hatches, and stage a last stand.
Light streams into their house through countless bullet holes during the inevitable shootout that follows, tinted purple like old photos from a toy camera. No one involved has the time to appreciate it, but it’s a striking sight all the same.
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