Jan. 10th, 2017

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Now on Netflix, so I watched it. Interestingly, it too was directed by Gavin O'Connor (who directed The Accountant, and is best known otherwise for his MMA championship movie Warrior, in which Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy play brothers competing for the title). It's probably best known as a former Black List screenplay that later became the project that Lynn Ramsey got bounced off of within the first two weeks, Milcho Manchevski-on-Ravenous style, which meant that once again a female filmmaker had been shut out of doing a "big" Hollywood film, essentially for "being difficult"; a particular piss-off in context, given that star Natalie Portman had fought so hard to midwife it as a producer.

The film continued to have its share of birth-pangs--male lead Joel Edgerton was originally supposed to play the main villain, Bishop, but switched to playing "hero" Dan Frost instead (if you can even call him that, given he's at least as morally compromised as Jane and her husband Hammond); the Bishop role then went through at least four considerably higher-profile actors, all of whom quit because of scheduling conflicts, before Ewan MacGregor was finally cast. I'm interested to note that the one characteristic all of these actors share is a certain brand of movie-star good looks--neither of the men who fall in love with Jane is "handsome," per se; Hammond is a mainly good-intentioned but violent hulk, Dan a bit of a rumpled non-dude even in his better days, perfect for a character actor like Edgerton. This fits with the story note that Jane's own beauty is a minus in her life, not a plus; it's what causes men to fixate on and pursue her, to remember her even after seven years, to resent her loss as a commodity, while Bishop's own fatal glamour is a tool/weapon he uses expressly to put people off their guard, especially ones he's planning to tie to a bed and sell tickets for.

A little research soon reveals that O'Connor might have always made for a surprisingly good replacement for Ramsey, since I'd totally forgotten he's also the director of Tumbleweeds (1999), a female-centric indie road movie starring Janet McTeer I reviewed when I was still at eye Weekly. Plus he's an actor as well as a director, so he probably handled Portman fairly well in terms of what she wanted out of things. Similarly, Edgerton was eventually tapped to rewrite the script, something he's well-qualified to do, as demonstrated by queasily effective 2015 thriller The Gift. (Sidebar: Edgerton's always been an interesting presence as an actor, to me; often tarred with the same Yet Another Boring Fucking White Guy brush as Sam Worthington, he actually reminds me strikingly of Russell Crowe with his facial hair all grown out--and Dan is definitely an early Crowe role, one which Edgerton handles with the same no-nonsense strength Portman brings to Jane.)

First reaction: like a lot of the things critics shit on en masse, Jane Got a Gun actually a perfectly fine example of its chosen genre; like I told Steve, all I can think is that people might have been generally unhappy with a genre narrative in which the central character is a multiple rape survivor, because otherwise, it's got everything you could possibly want in a classic siege Western: tough-mindedness, grit, stark New Mexico landscapes, the overhanging post-Civil War lure and trauma of the past, the difficulty of retaining a capacity for empathy, love and forgiveness in an essentially lawless, violent world.

When we first meet Jane Hammond, she appears to be the prototypical frontiers wife: doing for herself and her daughter ably out in the literal middle of nowhere, occupying what we later learn is the local homestead built furthest away from "civilization," and deliberately so. Then her current husband Ham (Noah Emmerich) finally comes home, slumped low over the bridle of his horse; he's run into trouble in town, been recognized as a wanted fugitive pursued by a posse of equally bad men, four of whom he shot before being perforated by bullets in his turn. Jane's reaction to this news immediately tells us she's not exactly the stereotypical innocent that we were initially led to believe--she wrangles Ham into the house, undeterred by him being roughly twice her size, and immediate starts the process of removing as much of the lead in him as she can, then packing the wounds with gunpowder and setting them on fire.

Much like her husband, we eventually realize, Jane has a past: she rides first to her neighbor's to drop off her child, then straight to the house of her former fiance Dan Frost, war hero turned drunk, with whom she shares painful history--he's the metaphorical gun she first tries to recruit before being rebuffed and riding off to nearby Lullabye instead, where she invests her savings in the real thing plus as much ammunition as she can carry. We've already seen her side-eye the cathouse as she stalks by, collar buttoned high and her hair twisted tight underneath a neat little hat; moments later, she's pulled into an alley and threatened with rape by one of Lullabye's town drunks, Fitchum (Rodrigo Santoro), who gleefully reminds her how much the Bishop Boys will pay to repossess her, as well as the bounty on former gang member Hammond's head. As she lies there in the dust, stunned into traumatized silence, Dan--now as cleaned up as he's ever likely to get--comes up from behind, drawing on Fitchum; they argue for a minute over Jane's fate like she's just some sort of prize, a victim we expect Dan to "rescue." Seconds later, however, it's still-prone Jane who hauls out her gun and puts Fitchum in the dirt, holding it two-handed to shoot him straight up through the belly; not something she's done before, necessarily, but she doesn't hesitate a second after her initial frozen moment of doubt and fear...and she never will again.

Both revisionist and respectful, Jane Got a Gun never falls squarely into the category of mere payback for sexual assault past, though it does check some of the boxes--and in hindsight, it's more than possible that this was one of the things which alienated audiences and critics alike, back during the film's theatrical run. As eventually demonstrated, Jane has already survived being prostituted against her will by Bishop and his gang, who promised her safe passage to San Francisco only to take her straight to a tiny room and an endless line of customers instead; having embarked on this journey because she though Dan had died in the War, she was travelling with their daughter, who she now believes is dead.

Hammond, then part of the Boys, was attracted enough to her to want to marry her even after rescuing her from Bishop's rape factory, and she's repaid his kindness the only way she knew how: married him, had his child, made a life for them both. When Dan turned up later on, it ensues, she refused to apologize or explain, waiting for him to want to hear her side of the story himself; like everything else about her, the way in which Jane chooses to process her pain is entirely practical, possibly something else that puts people off her as a "worthy" protagonist--she isn't fragile enough, let alone forgiving enough, having settled into the idea that life is now "not a thing to be lived, but a thing to be endured." Is she a bad woman for not breaking, or for daring to take what comfort she can from her marriage, her child, her routine? Or is she a bad woman for not hesitating when given the opportunity to finally avenge herself, if only to permanently remove Bishop's lingering, poisonous influence from her life, Hammond's, that of her second child...and Dan's, too?

We see Jane before Bishop's betrayal and we see her after, and in both slices of time she's a woman who'd always rather act than not, rather make her own mistakes and pay for them later, rather stand than run, let alone crawl; what she can't fix she'll endure, right up until she's given the opportunity to do something a bit more effective. "They come to my house, whatever happens, I got to set my face to it," she explains to Dan, who she never does chide for all the time he's already spent hating Hammond, let alone the fact that he can't set that hate aside even now his rival's wounded and probably about to die. It's almost like she trusts that the Dan she once knew will eventually find his way to a place where he can ask for her story, after which he'll understand why that attitude is pretty amazingly selfish and put it aside, so they can get back to the important reddish work at hand.

But maybe audiences didn't like that part, either--not the fact that Dan rises to her expectations, or the fact that Jane doesn't rise the theirs, when given the chance to do the expect "heroic" thing and NOT plug Bishop full of holes.

Much like everything else about her, however, Jane's moral code always matches itself neatly to the job at hand, be that bread-making, amateur doctoring or stuffing paraffin-filled mason jars full of broken glass and nails, in pursuit of the definitive removal of threats to those she loves. When Bishop tries to cheat death by telling her her first-born daughter is still alive, she doesn't negotiate for the girl's whereabouts--she demands the information, backing those demands up with lead. Then she loads this loathsome pimp gunslinger's dead body onto a wagon along with those of the rest of his gang, drives them into town and collects the bounty for each corpse, so her reunited family can start over.

TL; DR: Natalie Portman is so ridiculously beautiful that we sometimes forget what she's capable of, a plot point Jane Got a Gun makes liberal use of, to fine effect. And again, when she and Ewan MacGregor finally get down to it, she doesn't flinch; the result is really sort of beautiful itself, in its own stark, hard-ass way.


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