Sunday 19 June 2016

Jane Got A Gun (2016) - Movie Review

The plot: When her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) arrives home filled with bullet holes, Jane (Natalie Portman) sets up to protect her home and her family from the man responsible: Outlaw gang leader John Bishop (Ewan McGregor). She reaches out to gunslinger Dan (Joel Edgerton), whom is also her former lover, to help her and, between the lingering feelings between them and the approaching threat of Bishop and his gang, things are about to turn ugly.

The acting isn’t phenomenal or anything, but it’s still pretty decent. There might need to be an embargo put on Natalie Portman crying on camera again, as it gets kind of painful for all the wrong reasons at one point, but otherwise she does well as the continuously underestimated Jane. Maybe it’s from seeing her work with The Lonely Island, but her playing the badass isn’t that difficult to grasp once things get started here. Edgerton further shows how easily he can slip into different genres, as he wears the hat of a Western quick shooter like he’s already been typecast. He even manages to work with the somewhat tepid dialogue he’s been given, which considering he helped write it is hardly surprising.

Emmerich spends most of his screen time (what little of it he gets) bedridden and crippled, and yet he still manages to give this definite sense of chemistry with Portman and even has a couple of silent acting moments with Edgerton. McGregor... look, I really like the guy as an actor, but this isn’t his best work by a long shot. He does alright as the gang leader, but he comes across a little too gentleman-ly to fit alongside his cohorts, who go by such colourful names as Cunny Charlie and Slow Jeremiah. Maybe if they played up the polite assassin angle, his casting might have worked out better. However, considering Michael Fassbender was originally slated for his role, someone whom has already shown that he can play the amoral headhunter in this kind of setting, this feels like a serious letdown compared to what could have happened.

This is yet another escapee from the Black List, a yearly round-up of the most popular screenplays that hadn’t yet gotten picked up. Sure, utter crap like Pan, Self/Less and Sex Tape also populate those lists, but despite that, I still have to ask what exactly about this script warranted such attention. Maybe it’s as a result of the production issues this film has gone through, with pretty much every role involved being filled and re-filled since production began in 2012, but this feels extremely stripped down. I’ll admit, I’m going into this not being all that crazy about Westerns to begin with and this film doesn’t really add much flavour to the setting. Bounty hunting is a central aspect of the plot, said hunters are casual misogynists and rapists in equal measure, and the film ends in a big ol’ shoot-out. It doesn’t carry any of the darker humour of Slow West, the witty dialogue of The Hateful Eight, the visual majesty of The Revenant or even the philosophical tones of Far From Men; instead, it plays all of the very trope-y elements of the setting relatively straight. I’d put a bit of blame on Edgerton for falling on the writing front, but much like everything else, he was brought in at one point and it didn’t originate with him. Instead, it involved him doing a re-write of Brian Duffield’s original script along with Anthony Tambakis. Given how Duffield had a hand in writing Phase Two in Incoherence, otherwise known as Insurgent, I’m not exactly annoyed that it got re-worked.

So, what does this film have? A love triangle. As I take a very deep breath to compose myself at how this kind of story should not be in a production this scattershot behind the scenes, I will instead look at how this love triangle follows along with so many others before it. In that it is quite weak and predictable. First off, when one-third of the romantic side of things is bedridden and dying for the majority of the film, it’s kind of obvious how it will resolve. Secondly, we get a lot of bickering between Jane and Dan which is ultimately something better suited for a bog-standard rom-com, only with more of a frontier vocabulary. And lastly, a lot of said bickering and a hefty amount of the romantic subplot overall relies on the old staple of “You abandoned me!” “No, you abandoned me!”, which is about as necessary to a story as the characters looking for a literal white elephant. These discussions didn’t work in Winter’s War, and they certainly don’t pass muster here. What makes it hurt worse is that this is pretty much all that goes on for the majority of the film. If it isn’t showing flashbacks to Jane and Dan’s past relationship, it’s very, very slowly setting up the ending fight scene. No real character moments, which you’d think Edgerton would have injected in with the re-write; just chess piece storytelling. Blerg!

Well, that’s in terms of what the film keeps consistent throughout. There are traces of something else that could have potentially made the story more interesting, maybe, in the form of the way it portrays women in the setting. Not just Jane, but women as a whole. It basically boils down to how women were treated as property, and Jane asserts herself as something stronger than what is typical for a Western. This admittedly culminates in a rather powerful ending, showing that Joel’s knack for intense finales shows through even in films like this, and she does get a few self-assertive moments here and there. However, why this doesn’t end up working is due to one of the bigger issues with the screenplay: These characters are pretty much nonexistent.

A pitfall that an unfortunate number of writers fall into with writing for films is that they characterise people solely based on their relationships to others. Jane is Dan’s ex-fiancee and Ham’s current wife, Dan has a grudge against Ham for taking his woman away, John wants to hunt after Ham, etc. None of them exist as actual people in their own right; they only have importance when in conjunction with someone else. Because of this, aside from the dramatic moments mostly falling short, the attempt to show Jane as more than just property is sabotaged by how, unfortunately, she is just property. Specifically, she’s property of the filmmakers and only exists to fulfil the story they have set out. Yes, this is the case for pretty much every character ever created, but most writers know well enough to obscure their sole reason to exist with a personality that makes their actions worth watching. Here, aside from the aforementioned ending where Jane’s power finally comes into bloom, there’s nothing of the sort to be found here. Maybe if that feeling at the end was carried through the entire film, it could’ve worked out, but I imagine I’m not the only person who wound up fixating on what might have been with this feature.

All in all, yawn. I really don’t have a whole lot to add aside from that. The acting is alright and there are one or two moments that definitely sink into the brain, but otherwise this is a pretty by-the-numbers Western peppered with bits of by-the-numbers romantic drivel. Given the production history of this thing, I’m willing to cut Joel Edgerton some slack on the writing front, but it’s still disheartening to see this, especially after something as powerful as The Gift.

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