Monday, June 5, 2017

Is "Jane Got a Gun" Actually a Revisionist Western?

Gavin O'Connor's Jane Got a Gun had a tortured production history, with cast members quitting or dropping out as shooting got delayed and planned director Lynne Ramsay abandoned the project a day before filming was set to begin due to disputes with the producers. Nevertheless, with Natalie Portman as the star and co-producer, Jane was hotly anticipated, even as its release was continually delayed. In the end, it flopped with both audiences and critics.

It's true that the fevered expectations that had been raised by the idea of a feminist western, a collaboration between Academy-favorite Portman and indie darling Lynne Ramsay, were not met, and not only because the movie was ultimately directed by a man. Jane Got a Gun was touted through the years between its production and its release as a revisionist western, but in fact, it's a tightly scripted, neatly (perhaps too much so) structured, morally strait-laced, and deeply traditional western, with little sign of a revisionist impulse.

There seems to be an assumption that putting a woman at the center of a western is sufficient to flout genre conventions. Portman's Jane is a steely-eyed, miraculously dewy-skinned frontierwoman with a husband (Noah Emmerich, excellent, but under-utilized) shot full of bullets and a gun battle ahead of her with the Bishop Boys, led by a moustached Ewan McGregor. Unable to run, she enlists her former flame, Ned (Joel Edgerton), to help her protect the homestead and send the Bishop Boys to perdition. This plot is rip-roaring - and entirely in line with the plots of any western starring John Wayne, Randolph Scott, or Alan Ladd. Most westerns have one or two women to feature, looking gorgeous, on the poster.

Yes, Jane is a woman. She is also the only woman in the entire cast, barring some miscellaneous unnamed whores (the actresses are even credited as such) whose faces are never seen and the two little girls who play Jane's daughters. It is otherwise a fully male production and fails to subvert the hyper-masculinity of traditional westerns.

Yes, Jane shoots guns. She even shoots some bad guys! But, this is nothing new. Women frequently shoot guns in westerns, about as frequently as they need to be rescued by men. In the stunningly misogynistic Ride Lonesome, damsel in distress Carrie (Karen Steele), wearing a bright red blouse that Mae West wouldn't have bothered converting to a bustier, has no trouble at all shooting guns, but there's nothing remotely empowering in this action. When women shoot guns in westerns, they have a small set of purposes from which to choose: protecting themselves from rape, revenging themselves after being raped, protecting their children, and, slightly more rarely, revenging the man they loved (in this last case, the target for the bullet is usually a racistly depicted Native American character). None of Jane's reasons for violence fall outside that tiny range. Jane relies on men for help, for protection, for planning. Ned sets up the booby traps and readies the house, telling her what to do, not Jane.

The real problem with Jane is that Jane is totally justified. Hints of villainy dissolve as the past is revealed in flashbacks that seem to arrive with the regularity of a clock chime. There is no moral complexity in Jane Got a Gun. Bad guys murder, rape, traffic women to brothels, lie, steal, betray. Good guys protect, learn to listen with compassion, only shoot with perfect justification, rescue women and children, desire nothing more than to honor the woman they love with marriage. They shoot up the brothel to release a good woman from being raped. Women... well, the only woman is Jane. And Jane is a paragon.

This lack of moral complexity is what renders Jane Got a Gun so traditional. It's very satisfying as a traditional western, replete with dusty, golden landscapes, snorting horses, jingling spurs, whiskey that goes down as easy as water, and guns, guns, guns. Rather than confront the troubling racial politics of the genre, the film features an entirely white cast. I didn't spot a single extra who wasn't white. Rather than confront the troubling gender politics of the genre, Jane softens the usual dynamics so that the heroes do nothing unacceptable without altering the essential power structures and the villains are defined primarily by their malevolent sexual intentions and actions. Rather than confront the blatant justification of extra-legal violence westerns have always embraced, the film makes use of its moral simplicity to consider the murder of brutes a-okay and the murder of innocents a handy justification for murdering bad guys.

A true revisionist western dares to examine without flinching the rotten politics at the genre's core. Dances with Wolves told the story of western expansion from the point of view of a Sioux tribe and the white man who becomes their ally. Hombre destroyed the moral center that anchors most westerns by making its hero a biracial man expelled from the Native American tribe whose rights he cherishes and despised by the white men and women who need him to survive. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid let its heroes, if such they can be termed, have an underdeveloped sense of morality and an overdeveloped sense of fun. Blazing Saddles gave the racist little town of Rock Ridge a black sheriff they couldn't begin to deserve. Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar completely subverted expected gender dynamics, with Joan Crawford out-Wayne-ing John Wayne and Mercedes McCambridge out-Marvin-ing Lee Marvin. True Grit dared to have a female protagonist who is never a sex object and shoots her gun for as many reasons as a man does.

Jane Got a Gun is a pretty darn good western, of the traditional bang-bang-shoot-'em-up variety, though it adds a bit of gauzily filmed romance and its heroine wears a cartridge belt. But it's not a revisionist western and suffers critically if considered as such.

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