Jane got a gun. She also got a movie. Hooray! And not just because women hardly ever get the spotlight in a Western. This particular film suffered a long roller-coaster battle to get made: its original director and a big-name star dropped out along the way; cast was reshuffled. But there’s no hint of behind-the-scenes turmoil in the finished product: this is a lean action drama, laconic but simmering with deep emotion that must stay buried with more pragmatic concerns at the fore.
It’s Middle of Nowhere, New Mexico Territory, 1871, when Jane’s (a steely Natalie Portman: Thor: The Dark World, Your Highness) husband, Bill (Noah Emmerich: Blood Ties, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas), comes staggering home, shot up by the notorious gang led by John Bishop (an almost unrecognizable Ewan McGregor: Miles Ahead, Mortdecai). She tends to him, but Bill is in bad shape, and will not be able to defend their home — and their small daughter — from Bishop’s Boys, who are on their way to finish them both off. Flashbacks to a few years earlier fill us in on what Bishop has against them both, and why neighbor Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton: Midnight Special, Black Mass), to whom Jane turns for help, lives up to his name by being so chilly toward her even as he comes to her aid.
We’re not sure at first whether Bill himself is a villain — was it a simple falling-out among bad guys that led to his shooting? — but even before we learn the truth about him we realize that it doesn’t matter. What we are getting here is a woman’s gritty, practical perspective on many of the tropes of the genre. All those wide-open spaces of the Old West, where a man could be free? Not so much for a woman, whose lot depends on the man she has allied herself with… and we come to see that Jane’s alliance with Bill may be far more a matter of neccesity than of romance. She is doing what she has to in order to protect herself and her child. Everything that she has done, now and in those flashbacks to the past, has been about surviving in the best way she can.
The movie’s title sighs with resignation — Jane doesn’t want a gun, but she knows how to use one, and will if she has to — but the movie itself, though rather sparse and clipped in attitude, has nothing but sympathy for Jane’s predicament. (Kudos to director Gavin O’Connor [Pride and Glory, Miracle] for refusing to let his depictions of men’s rage against women, and men’s determination to treat women as their property to do with as they please, become titillating and tantalizing, as similar scenes are in countless other films, even ones that purport to take a woman’s point of view.) Here is a story that, satisfyingly, recognizes that even in a world deeply unfair to women, one in which women have little choice but to rely on men, there is still plenty of room for a woman to assert herself, and plenty of opportunity to be her own person. In fact, how someone with limited options makes the most of those options can be the stuff of wonderfully suspenseful drama. As it is here.