Natalie Portman’s Feminist Western Deserves More Attention


Film Review: Jane Got a Gun,” directed by Gavin O’Connor, 2015

The Hollywood western is the ultimate American film genre, full of maverick heroes and brutish villains amid a sprawling frontier landscape. “Jane Got a Gun” delivers all of that—from the perspective of a young woman protecting her family and home.

Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman) is a mother and wife forced to take matters into her own hands when her husband, Bill Hammond (Noah Emmerich), comes home full of bullets and barely alive. He’s sure that his attackers, a gang called the Bishop Boys, will come for him. John Bishop (Ewan McGregor), the posse’s leader, is bent on killing Bill for deserting the gang to save Jane from Bishop’s brothel.

In the face of an impending home invasion, Jane acts quickly and decisively. She extracts the bullets from Bill herself and cares for him, drops off their young daughter at a friend’s home, and then seeks help in defending her family.

The fact that she turns to her former fiancé, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), a Civil War veteran turned gunslinger, has some critics concluding that the film has failed in its feminist message. Why does she need a man’s help at all? This seems to be the bone of contention.

Jane the Feminist

The movie is set in New Mexico Territory circa 1870s. After three years of waiting for Dan to return home from the war, Jane goes looking for him and crosses paths with the Bishop Boys. Believing that Dan is dead, she marries Bill after he saves her from his own posse.

Jane is neither an Annie Oakley nor a Calamity Jane. She’s a survivor. She’s smart—hats off to her for performing a crude surgery successfully—and brave. She shoots and fights the bad guys like a woman of her times. Any help the heartbroken Dan extends doesn’t make Jane less of a heroine.

Natalie Portman, though delicate-looking, is transformed into a ferocious mother and wife in this film. She may not have the toughness of Hilary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy in “The Homesman” (2014) or the pluck of Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross in “True Grit” (2010), but her steely courage is laudable.

Gavin O’Connor, who directed the critically acclaimed “Warrior” (2011), delivers a highly competent western with stunning imagery and solid performances by Portman, Edgerton, and McGregor.

“Jane Got a Gun” is a rare western told from a female perspective, which doesn’t fall into a feminist caricature like Sharon Stone’s “The Quick and the Dead” (1995) and doesn’t succumb to the tragic fatalism of “The Homesman.” It deserves more attention for its earnest depiction of the harsh frontier life from a woman’s point of view.

It’s too bad that many critics don’t get Jane because they’re using a 21st-century yardstick to measure the worth of an 18th-century character. Most reviews also emphasize (unfairly) the behind-the-scenes troubles of the production of this movie.

If you like westerns, or if you’re just sick of space operas and movies about alien attacks, go catch Jane in a movie theater now!