Jane Got A Gun is Natalie Portman’s ode (and a door kick) to the Western film genre. There are all the usual emotions and plot-lines we’ve come to love in a Western but without all that machismo hype. Instead, the film is a sober, pragmatic look at one woman’s fight for survival in the wild, wild west that has revolutionised the genre with it’s own brand of girl power.
When you think of Natalie Portman and westerns, it’s like making pancakes with soy sauce. Her career has volleyed from indie Euro action (“Leon: The Professional”) to blockbusters (“Star Wars” prequels and “Thor”) and Oscar-winning films (“Black Swan”), so it was a little surprising for me to hear she was going to be in The Weinstein Company’s Tarantino-less latest indie Western offering, “Jane Got A Gun”.
I admit, as a tomboy, I was really into a the whole cowboys and ‘injuns’ thing. I wanted to be Calamity Jane. No wait, I wanted to be Yul Brynner in “The Magnificient Seven” but Westerns dropped off my radar when “Little House on The Prairie” and “Bonanza” gave way to “The Knight Rider” and “The A-Team” back in the 80s. “True Grit” was also the first Western I had seen since “The Last Mohicans” back in the 90s, so that tells you how out of touch I am with the genre. OK – I am NOT counting “The Revenant” here. That was a film about a physically challenged grunting man and a grunting bear. I don’t count that as a Western but more of a grunt fest.
Now where was I? Ah, yes! “True Grit”! Now since Hailee Steinfeld’s refreshing portrayal of a strong female protagonist in the former, it has been a rare to see a film in the genre where a leading female character gets to use her wits to get out of a sticky situation, spurs and all.
“Jane Got A Gun” is that type of film. Thankfully, unlike the superhero epics we’re getting bombarded with these days, this small, indie western is just over one and a half hours long – which is adequate enough to tell a hardy, compelling story about Portman’s character, Jane Hammond and not have to go to the bathroom halfway.
Plagued by endless pre-production problems from crew to cast, “Jane Got a Gun” is a 2016 American action Western film directed by Gavin O’Connor and written by Brian Duffield, Joel Edgerton, and Anthony Tambakis. The film stars Natalie Portman (who is also credited as a producer on the film) as Jane Hammond, a woman who asks her ex-lover, Dan Frost (Edgerton) for help in order to save her outlaw husband, Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich) from a gang led by John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) out to kill him. The film was released on January 29, 2016 to critical acclaim but not very much money. Boo!
Anyway, despite not drawing much in box-office takings, the film has heart. The story tenderly opens with Jane telling her 2-year-old daughter a bedtime story over credits before quickly moving into a scene where her ex-outlaw husband, Bill Hammond, is seen heading back to the house on a horse, his back ridden with bullets. As Portman’s character provides 1870s type A&E to his wounds, she learns from him that he was attacked by the Bishop Boys, a wanted gang of outlaws who once enslaved her into their prostitution business.
She bandages him up nicely and heads out to seek the only good gunslinger she knows – her ex-lover and fiancee, Dan Frost, to help her take the Bishop Boys down. Still nursing feelings of hurt and betrayal at Jane for not staying loyal to their love while he was away at war, Dan initially refuses to help her. However, like most heroes in Westerns, he can’t help but save the day for Jane when he unexpectedly encounters her shooting an old foe from the gang, point-blank, when he taunts her about her painful past.
It’s moments like these that make this film stand out from other Westerns because one sees how Jane never operates from a helpless damsel-in-distress space no matter how much her life is in dire straits. In fact, under its typical Western-styled themes of injustice and revenge facade, lies a tale with strong cathartic arcs for its two leading characters. These arcs are why the film focuses on how Jane’s strength and courage is shaped by her violent past and not defined by it.
Using flashbacks, the story reveals how a younger, more desperate Jane, struggles to keep things together as a single mother with her child, Mary, borne out of wedlock with Dan. She seeks security with John Bishop, played almost unrecognisably by Ewan McGregor coz we had to squint our eyes a-plenty to even find any hint of him behind those thick eyebrows and moustache (Good job Ewan!).
The fresh perspective you get on feminism in this piece dared to break away from traditional Hollywood gender cliches famously portrayed in Westerns. While there’s quite a lot of fun-filled gun-slinging here, it’s important to note that this isn’t just a story about a woman taking revenge on her perpetrators during a vulnerable time in her life. She could have done that much, much earlier but instead, the film focuses on how Jane needed to protect those she loves from further harm. It is a surprisingly pragmatic choice from a character that finds herself between a rock and a hard place – especially from a character that has been a victim of rape.
Of course, portraying sexually assaulted survivors isn’t new in Hollywood. From films like the highly controversial “The Accused” to “Boys Don’t Cry” which dealt with gay bullying and society’s trouble accepting gender-bending individuals, the message has always been ‘blood for blood’. This isn’t necessarily bad because back then, the lines of morality in storytelling were very defined – just pit the good against evil and see how the characters evolve from those events.
However, in today’s world of storytelling, the lines are not so clear and I’m glad to say that “Jane Got A Gun” managed to step into that realm from the good guy’s perspective. Yes, she was a victim of her circumstance but as long as her former aggressors left her alone, her character seemed the type that wouldn’t try to rock the boat unless provoked. For a film to have its female lead use such restraint is an impressive forward-thinking move by Hollywood standards that brings a newfound maturity to female roles in the industry.