There are movies that can make you feel nostalgic for a more innocent time — i.e., the pre-Internet era — when audiences (and critics) could approach each new release unburdened by detailed knowledge of its production history. “Jane Got a Gun,” a solidly made and conventionally satisfying Western, is one of those movies. For those who have perused the countless accounts of last-minute cast changes, musical directors’ chairs and repeatedly delayed release dates, it may be difficult to objectively judge what actually appears on screen here without being distracted by thoughts of what could have been, or should have been.
To be sure, a hefty percentage of the folks most likely to enjoy an old-fashioned oater such as this normally won’t devote massive quantities of time to consuming showbiz blogs and trade papers. But those unplugged genre aficionados may not know “Jane Got a Gun” exists, since the Weinstein Company opted to open it with only slightly more advance notice than is normally afforded a traffic accident. By the time word reaches most interested parties, this luckless sagebrush saga will have vamoosed from the megaplexes.
When it reaches home-screen platforms, however, “Jane Got a Gun” almost certainly will find a receptive audience for its revisionist yet respectful spin on genre conventions. Indeed, the only thing about it that might rankle traditionalists is the sporadic use of four- and five-letter words. (Yes, there still are people who get upset by the sort of thing. And many of those people feel under-served because Hollywood seldom gives them this sort of movie.)
Natalie Portman is persuasive and compelling in the lead role of Jane Hammond, a slightly built but formidably resourceful pioneer woman who’s greatly upset when John (Noah Emmerich), her husband, returns one day to their New Mexico Territory farm with several bullets in his innards. Mind you, John’s ambush is not a complete surprise to Jane, since he is an outlaw with a price on his head, and both of them have long been hunted by John Bishop (Ewan McGregor), a grandiloquent villain with an old score to settle with the couple. But with her husband temporarily indisposed while he recovers from his wounds, Jane realizes she must even the odds as she prepares for the worst.
And so, after placing her young daughter out of harm’s way, Jane rides over to the tumbledown home of Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), a hard-drinking gunslinger with whom she shared a relationship — and more, it’s gradually revealed — years earlier. At first, Dan rejects Jane’s plea for help with a surly display of alcohol-fueled resentment. But when push comes to shove, well, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do — especially when it looks like a woman will dang well try to do it alone if he doesn’t.
Not surprisingly, considering the movie’s title, there is a perceptible feminist undercurrent to the screenplay credited to Edgerton, Brian Duffield and Anthony Tambakis. Jane is not your grandfather’s Western heroine: She can fire bullets into bad guys just as efficiently as she can take them out of her husband. Granted, she may not be the world’s surest shot when it comes to hitting a long-range target. But when she’s facing a foe in close quarters — particularly during the applause-worthy finale — she shoots and she scores. Portman handles the rough stuff quite convincingly throughout “Jane Got a Gun.” She’s at her best, though, in scenes where Jane demonstrates that maternal rage can be every bit as lethal as a quick draw.
Gavin O’Connor, a filmmaker whose intriguing resume runs the gamut from the warmly femme-centric (“Tumbleweeds”) to the aggressively macho (“Warrior”), maintains a deliberate pace, less a gallop than a canter, during what basically amounts to a readying-to-rumble narrative interspersed with backstory-abundant flashbacks. After the measured build-up, he effectively amps the excitement (with the invaluable assistance of editor Alan Cody) during the climactic shootout, then tops it off with a coda that slyly suggests what Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name might have done a few hours after the ending of “For a Few Dollars More.”
There are more than a few tips of the Stetson to other classic Westerns, ranging from visual quotes (a gaze-through-the-doorway shot that recalls the beginning and end of “The Searchers”) to plot developments (the “Magnificent Seven”-style approach to rigging booby-traps around the Hammond homestead). And there is a classical look and feel to the movie overall, with handsome widescreen lensing by Mandy Walker and aptly evocative music by Lisa Gerrard and Marcello de Francisci.
Edgerton hits the right balance of sullen gruffness and soulful sincerity as Dan, while McGregor artfully entwines amusement and menace as he serves generous slices of ham as John Bishop. Emmerich has little to do but lie in bed and indicate that being shot multiple times can really take a lot out of you. But what he does, he does well.