How the west was browned
John Ford’s great 1962 Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ended with a newspaper editor opining that, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” At this point, the concept of a solemn, sepia-toned, ominously symbolic West is the mythology that demands debunking. In Gavin O’Connor’s laborious Jane Got a Gun, everyone and everything is brown all the time, including nearly every piece of clothing and interior décor, a tired trope all too typical of the “revisionist Western.”
The film adheres to this all-brown color scheme in an attempt at authenticity, despite the fact that other colors have existed at least as far back as the 19th century, and perhaps even earlier. It’s a tactic employed for the sake of reality, even though it’s a lie. Jane Got a Gun doesn’t replace the legend with facts; it just replaces the old legend with a different, much more boring, much more brown legend. It’s all so hazily brown that it’s hard to tell if O’Connor is going for Rio Brown-o, Pale Brown Rider or High Noon—Brown Version.
Natalie Portman stars as Jane Hammond, wife of an outlaw (Noah Emmerich), a man who returns home one day riddled with bullets, carrying news that their unspoken past has caught up. Jane loads up on ammunition and recruits the help of ex-lover Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), a Civil War hero still carrying a torch for his lost love, in order to protect her husband. Meanwhile, sadistic gang leader Colin McCann (Ewan McGregor) and his facial-scarred (i.e., evil) henchmen slowly (and I mean, slooooowly) advance.
Unfortunately, Jane keeps getting overshadowed by the men in her own film. Portman is monotone until she gets a big crying scene, and then she goes deliriously over the top. As the husband, Emmerich could out-act all three leads in his sleep, which is essentially what he does here, only making it off his deathbed in flashback glimpses. Edgerton continues to reveal himself as a one-note actor, and McGregor did not suddenly become good.
Jane Got a Gun’s production was famously troubled—original director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk about Kevin) was replaced in pre-production by a more conventional genre director in Gavin O’Connor (Warrior), while Portman’s male co-stars rode a recasting carousel that saw Edgerton switch roles and left Michael Fassbender, Bradley Cooper and Jude Law in the dust. All that and then the production company went bankrupt, leaving the film in distribution limbo for two years.
You don’t need to know any of that extratextual information in order to know that Jane Got a Gun is a conflicted, clumsy, compromised mess. It unfolds in a choppy and tedious flashback structure that robs the story of any forward momentum. There’s never any emotional connection to the characters, and the third act deaths don’t carry an impact. Aesthetic decisions are largely nonsensical, and each plot dump seems to contradict the previous plot dump. Yes, those dumps are colored brown, too.